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mlkarrestedMartin Luther King, Jr (1929-1968 ) was an American civil rights leader who helped to overturn America’s racist laws. He read Gandhi and found a way to change America without violence. He was shot dead in Memphis in 1968. Although he was never president or even a senator or a general, he was still one of the greatest Americans of all time. The third Monday in January is a holiday in America to honour him.

Most people when they think of King think of him giving the “I Have a Dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. But the picture that sticks in my mind was when he was arrested five years before in Alabama.

I saw that picture when I was little. I asked my mother about it – it must be some kind of mistake. She said no, he broke the law. That made the picture an even deeper mystery: why would a good man break the law?

Because not all laws are just. Like bones, sometimes you must break laws to set them straight.

In the 1600s and 1700s blacks were brought from Africa to America in chains to work the land as slaves. It was a crying injustice that broke the nation in two in the middle of the 1800s: the free states in the North fought a terrible war against the slave states in the South.

The North won the war and freed the slaves. But then the South passed laws based on the colour of a man’s skin – the Jim Crow laws. And it went beyond mere laws: a whole society was built nakedly on the idea that all men are not created equal.

Blacks, for example, had to sit at the back of the bus: any seats in the front had to be given up to whites who wanted them.

rosaparksThen one day in 1955 Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat: she was sick and tired of being sick and tired. She was arrested. She was not the first black person to do that, but a young Christian minister, fresh from school, was able to turn that simple act into a mass movement where blacks stopped riding the buses in that city and so got the law changed. That young minister was Martin Luther King, Jr.

He went on and showed ordinary black people throughout the South how they could change the country if they stood together as one. He showed ordinary white people, through their television sets, the country’s shame through pictures, like with the march on Selma in 1965.

That and other things led to the overturning of the Jim Crow laws in the 1950s and 1960s.

Racism is more than just bad laws and racism is still far from over, yet all that made possible this day, January 20th 2009, when a black man will become president of the United States of America for the first time in history.

obama1

– Abagond, 2009.

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Ladies and Gentlemen – I’m only going to talk to you just for a minute or so this evening. Because. . . I have some – some very sad news for all of you, and I think sad news for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world, and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.

Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it’s perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in.

For those of you who are black – considering the evidence evidently is that there were white people who were responsible – you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge.

We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization – black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion and love.

For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.

But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond these rather difficult times.

My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote:

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
comes wisdom
through the awful grace of God.

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.

So I ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King – yeah that’s true – but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love – a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke. We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times. We’ve had difficult times in the past. And we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; and it’s not the end of disorder.

But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings that abide in our land.

Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.

Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people. Thank you very much.

(Thanks to Macon D’s blog, Stuff White People Do, for reminding me about this speech)

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