Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little’s remarks at the Greater Wichita Ministerial League's 2014 Citywide Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Celebration
Remarks as prepared for delivery
Thank you to the Greater Wichita Ministerial League for organizing this celebration, and for inviting me to be a part of it.
I am honored to have the opportunity to reflect on Martin Luther King, Junior’s legacy of peace, and to share my thoughts as we commemorate his birth.
Forty-six years ago, King spoke to a vigil for anti-war protestors who were jailed at Santa Rita Prison in California. He told the crowd gathered outside the prison, “There can be no justice without peace and there can be no peace without justice.”
When he addressed that vigil, this country was engaged in a war overseas and the struggle for civil rights here at home.
Four and a half years earlier, he had stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and told America of his great dream. It’s a speech we still quote and celebrate today.
But most people don’t remember that what we know as the “March on Washington” was actually the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” We forget that economic opportunity was as central to the civil rights struggle as equality before the law.
So as we talk about King’s legacy of peace, I want to tie the remarks he made that day in Washington to the wisdom he shared with that vigil on the other side of the nation four and a half years later.
“There can be no justice without peace and there can be no peace without justice.”
The civil rights movement was about many things, from the right to vote to the right to be served in a restaurant. And it took many forms, from marches and voter registration drives, to sit-ins and boycotts.
But at its heart was a desire by African-Americans to be treated with dignity, and to have the same opportunities to succeed as all Americans.
By contrast, I’d like to recall a quote from a 16th century theologian:
“By predestination we mean the eternal decree of God, by which he determined with himself whatever he wished to happen with regard to every man. All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and, accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that he has been predestinated to life or to death.”
Do you believe that? That your fate was predestined at birth? I do not believe that mine was. Martin Luther King did not believe his was.
What was radical about King was his intention to overthrow the notion that some people are predetermined to live at the lower rungs of society because of coming from a poor family, or because of their race or ethnicity. Basically, he worked to disprove the ideology of predestination and to replace it with a philosophy of respect and love for each individual.
Rev. King believed that your fate should not be determined by the color of your skin, which is just another way of saying that all human beings are created on equal terms. And that if one of us is predestined to failure or to poverty or to hatred—it’s because we have all failed that person.
There are many ways in which we participate in “predestining others.” We deny rights to the poor, but blame them for being poor. We want to benefit from the labor of immigrants in our midst, but do not want them to participate fully in our society. There are now many human beings who live within our communities whom our society has silenced or is attempting to silence.
Through individual choices, through our laws, and through our economic system, we can be responsible for relegating other human beings to the margins. Or, we can make choices that reinforce a belief in opportunity and full citizenship for all.
It’s true that we have made great progress in the years and decades since King strived for, and ultimately died for, this belief. Many barriers have fallen, and many of us in this room are the grateful beneficiaries of sacrifices made by those who came before us. I certainly benefited from these changes, as did most of my sisters and brothers.
But despite this progress, I fear we are sliding backwards in many areas. I fear that that King’s legacy is being lost, and that the fates of far too many of our fellow citizens are now predestined.
Over the past several decades, we’ve become a more unequal nation. Income inequality is higher, and opportunities to move up the ladder fewer, in the United States than in most other developed nations. Many of our fellow citizens, whether in the core of our cities or in struggling rural communities, are now trapped in a cycle of poverty. They see dim prospects for rising into the middle class, while other citizens worry about even staying in it.
This runs contrary to not only King’s dream, but to the American Dream. It undermines the belief that we can each rise on our merits and achieve as much as our talents will allow. And it closes doors for our children and grandchildren that the civil rights movement opened for us.
Addressing inequality of opportunity is central to bringing both justice and peace.
Inequality is crippling our communities economically, sapping the potential of our cities and our nation. How many great business leaders, great scientists, and great teachers have we lost because they were never truly given the opportunity to succeed?
It is crippling our communities physically, as we see great disparities in health based on a person’s income. Access to preventative and primary care is hard to come by when you’re poor, meaning our fellow citizens suffer with illnesses or injuries for years, limiting their opportunities at work, at school and in their daily lives.
And it is crippling our communities spiritually, denying dignity and opportunity to too many of our fellow citizens.
Inequality is about education, that was known in the 1960s and it’s equally true now. There continues to be a strong and direct relationship between the level of your education, your job, your income, and your health. No one---no one has ever been able to disprove that connection.
There is a direct connection between the proportion of college-educated citizens in a community and its overall economic health. Any economist will tell you this. Human capital is the key to economic prosperity. When a community has a high level of college educated citizens, not only do the college degree holders earn more money, but so do those with high school diplomas.
Thus one way to address income inequality is through access to educational opportunities – though I fear we are sliding backwards on that front, as we’ve seen a disinvestment in our public schools and colleges.
This is very personal to me. I grew up in a large family with very meager means. My parents were barely able to provide food and shelter for us. There was simply no way they could contribute to the cost of higher education.
From that beginning, but with the help of my community, scholarships, and federal programs, I was able to go to college and graduate school. I became a faculty member, and now chancellor of one of our great public universities.
Would I be able to make the same journey now? Possibly, but it would be much harder to do than it was in the 1960s, 70s, or 80s.
If we are to live up to King’s legacy of peace, we must recommit ourselves and our nation to achieving the justice he sought. We must renew our belief that none of us is predestined to great poverty, just as surely as none of us is predestined to great wealth.
We must invest in education, from pre-K through higher education, and on to adult education for those displaced by changing economy. We all benefit when our children have the opportunity to make full use of their God-given talents, and when our fellow citizens have the opportunity to learn new skills so that they may get ahead in a changing world.
We must invest in health care, especially for underserved populations, whether they’re in our largest cities or smallest towns. Our faculty and medical students provide free health care here in Wichita through the JayDoc Community Clinic, yet they can meet only a fraction of the community’s needs. At the same time we’re educating physicians to practice in rural areas, yet far too many Kansans must drive long distances to see a doctor – if they can afford to see one at all.
And we must commit to the idea that today, in America, a full day’s work should bring with it a wage that lifts you out of poverty, not one that leaves you dependent on government programs or the charity of others.
We should work for these goals because it will bring more stability and more profitability to our communities---because it will.
But we should also work toward those goals out of love of other individuals, and love of our neighbors, and a desire for peace, and for justice.
Rev. King often spoke of the power of love. He was not talking about Valentines, pink roses and hearts. All of that is good and sweet.
He was speaking of the kind of love that can fundamentally change our society and disrupt our way of thinking. Love that is the result of hard work and commitment.
The kind of love that motivated King wasn’t a love you can “fall” into. This kind of love is a purposeful love. A love that we manifest through our actions and words.
So, whatever moves you: a sense of justice, a desire for economic prosperity, a commitment to love your neighbor, or just a belief that it’s the right thing to do, it is time to renew our commitment to equality and to justice.
For that will truly give us peace.