Category Archives: Activisim

The Radical King

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The Radical King

New Year – and I’m working on honing my potential for prophetic witness and challenge. So maybe I can manage to resume blogging.

Here’s the speech I delivered this morning at the Rogers Memorial Library (of Southampton, NY) annual MLK Breakfast. (it’s long for a blog – and it’s a speech – so better heard than read, but here you go)


I’ve been thinking about which Martin Luther King, Jr. to talk to you about this morning. King the pastor. King the prophet. King the organizer. King the Dreamer. Which King do you remember and recall and pass down?

I watched the television show Black•ish, last week. (If you’re not watching it, you’re missing out). This episode was mostly about how people, and how this Black family is responding to the election of Donald Trump as President. At the father’s workplace, actual work has ground to a standstill. At the children’s high school, relationships have deteriorated to the point that they have been given the day off to reflect and to prepare for a “Unity Day.” The son, Jr., has been asked to deliver a part of Rev. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech—delivered during the March on Washington in 1963.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. …That one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.[1]

Jr. is reminded, though, by his grandfather of a different King. The King who also in that speech said:

This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality—1963 is not an end but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual.

There will be a neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundation of our nation until the bright days of justice emerge.[2]

I want to talk to you this morning about this King. The Radical King. The prophet who preached change. The organizer who understood power. The pastor, who remained grounded in love.

In the introduction to his collection of speeches by King—titled The Radical King, Dr. Cornel West writes

In Dr. King’s own time, he would say repeatedly, “I am nevertheless greatly saddened…that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment, or my calling.” It is no accident that just prior to King’s death, 72 percent of whites and 55 percent of blacks disapproved of his opposition to the Vietnam War and his efforts to eradicate poverty in America. When much of the black leadership attacked or shunned him, King replied, “What you’re saying may get you a foundation grant but it won’t get you into the kingdom of truth.” In short, Martin Luther King, Jr., refused to sell his soul for a mess of pottage. He refused to silence his voice in his quest for unarmed truth and unconditional love. For King, the condition of truth was to allow suffering to speak; for him, justice was what love looks like in public.[3]

West continues: “Although much of America did not know the radical King— and too few know today— the FBI and US government did. They called him ‘the most dangerous man in America.’”[4]

The most dangerous man in America.

They understood his revolutionary power. The power to organize tens of thousands of Black people to successfully boycott the bus system in Montgomery Alabama. The power to inspire millions of Americans—Black and White and everything in between to support and fight for a vision—a dream—of a more just society. The ability to harness the transformative power of love to challenge business as usual in order to change our world.

King tells us that power is not a thing to shy away from, but to cultivate and to harvest and to use skillfully. One of his associates (and I think friends) was Walter Reuther. During the March on Washington, Walter Reuther marched with Dr. King. And during his speech, Reuther stood by his side. This association—between King and Reuther—is especially meaningful to me because before ministry, I was a member of and then an organizer for the United Auto Workers Union (the UAW), founded by Walter Reuther. In his last speech before the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1967, King says this about power:

Now, power properly understood is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political, and economic change. Walter Reuther defined   power one day. He said, “Power is the ability of a labor union like UAW to make the most powerful corporation in the world, General Motors, say ‘Yes’ when it wants to say ‘No.’ That’s power.”

Now a lot of us are preachers, and all of us have our moral convictions and concerns, and so often we have problems with power. There is nothing wrong with power if power is used correctly. You see, what happened is that some of our philosophers got off base. And one of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites, polar opposites, so that love is identified with a resignation of power, and power with a denial of love. It was this misinterpretation that caused the philosopher Nietzsche, who was a philosopher of the will to power, to reject the Christian concept of love. It was this same misinterpretation which induced Christian theologians to reject Nietzsche’s philosophy of the will to power in the name of the Christian idea of love.

Now we got to get this thing right. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best, power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love. And this is what we must see as we move on.[5]

Power, paired with love. Power in the name of love. That is transformative. And used skillfully, with purpose. This is what King was calling us to all those years ago. To remember our purpose and to keep our eyes on the prize. I think about that a lot lately in our current presidential climate. Now, I don’t want to be partisan—but I have a political point of view. And so, I’m going to go there. Because when I look at our politics today—and especially our President Elect, I can’t help but characterize it as chaos. So much chaos and distraction and–in my opinion-foolishness surrounding this president, that my work is to keep my eyes on the prize. To stay focused on what’s at stake. To not be distracted. And instead, to be maladjusted.

In a 1963 speech, The Rev. King talked about creative maladjustment. He said

there are certain things in our nation and in the world which I am proud to be maladjusted and which I hope all men of good‐will will be maladjusted. I say very honestly that I never intend to become adjusted to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to become adjusted to religious bigotry. I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. I never intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism, to self‐defeating effects of physical violence.

In other words, I’m about convinced now that there is need for a new organization in our world. The International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment—men and women who will be as maladjusted as the prophet Amos. Who in the midst of the injustices of his day could cry out in words that echo across the centuries, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” As maladjusted as Abraham Lincoln who had the vision to see that this nation would not survive half‐slave and half‐free. As maladjusted as Thomas Jefferson who in the midst of an age amazingly adjusted to slavery would scratch across the pages of history words lifted to cosmic proportions, “We know these truths to be self‐evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator certain unalienable rights” that among these are “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” As maladjusted as Jesus of Nazareth who could say to the men and women of his day, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you. Pray for them that despitefully use you.” Through such maladjustment, I believe that we will be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man into the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice. My faith is that somehow this problem will be solved.[6]

We ought to be maladjusted—yes. Creatively maladjusted. Filled with the force of a righteous anger at anything that stands against love. Filled with a force of anger at anything that stands against justice. At discrimination, at religious bigotry, at economic injustice, at militarism, at senseless and useless violence. As urgent a message today as it was 53 years ago.

I want to leave you with just one more thing from King The Pastor. King The Theologian. The King who was always guided by Love.

And I say to you, I have also decided to stick with love, for I know that love is ultimately the only answer to mankind’s problems. And I’m going to talk about it everywhere I go. I know it isn’t popular to talk about it in some circles today. And I’m not talking about emotional bosh when I talk about love; I’m talking about a strong, demanding love. For I have seen too much hate. I’ve seen too much hate on the faces of sheriffs in the South. I’ve seen hate (on the faces of too many Klansmen and too many White Citizens’ Councilors in the South) to want to hate, myself, because every time I see it, I know that it does something to their faces and their personalities, and I say to myself that hate is too great a burden to bear. I have decided to love. If you are seeking the highest good, I think you can find it through love. And the beautiful thing is that we aren’t moving wrong when we do it, because John was right, God is love. He who hates does not know God, but he who loves has the key that unlocks the door to the meaning of ultimate reality. [7]

This message of love. This is the Radical King. This is my inspiration for the work of ministry.

Like King, I choose love. And I will talk about it everywhere I go.

[1] Martin Luther King, Jr. “I Have A Dream,” 1963.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Martin Luther King Jr., The Radical King (King Legacy), Beacon Press. 2015. Kindle Edition.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Martin Luther King Jr., “Where Do We Go From Here,” in The Radical King (King Legacy), Beacon Press. 2015. Kindle Edition
[6] Martin Luther King, Jr., speech at Western Michigan University, Dec 18th, 1963.
[7] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Where Do We Go From Here,” August 1967.

 

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Color Consciousness

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This summer, as a project of the UUCM Undoing Racism Committee, I have been reading The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. Included in Alexander’s argument is the contention that civil rights leaders, the very people who should be leading the charge against mass incarceration, have turned a blind eye. Comfortable championing the model citizen, the civil rights movement has been slow to fly the same flags of righteousness in defense of the incarcerated. Constrained by “the politics of respectability,” civil rights leaders have worked to prove our ‘worthiness,’ demonstrating that Blacks are “just like” read “just as good as” Whites. This posture makes it difficult to advocate on behalf of criminals who, after all, “must have done something wrong.”

Alexander works to demonstrate that many of the people corralled into the system through the war on drugs are innocent – or at least, not very guilty. They could be any of us. But some criminals are guilty. They have broken the law. How do we fight for the rights of these people?

The answer is twofold. First, it requires that we embrace an ethic of forgiveness. All of us make mistakes. And many of us will break a law: smoking a joint, drinking underage, speeding on a highway or city street. The test of our character – both individual and as a society – is how we respond. Do we strip individuals of their rights in perpetuity, or do we forgive? Second, it calls for a recognition that this system of mass incarceration is not just about crime-fighting. It is, instead, a system of racial control. But it’s difficult to talk about mass incarceration as a system of racial control in a post racial America. How do we allege ‘racism’ at a set of laws that are ostensibly race neutral.

Alexander poses this as the difference between “colorblindness” and “color consciousness.”  Colorblindness is the idea that we no longer see race. We make policy and treat each other as if race does not exist. This concept,  Alexander argues, has dominated our political stance toward race since the “success” of the Civil Rights Movement. With the achievements of policies like Affirmative Action and the visible evidence of successful Black Americans – epitomized by the election of Barack Obama – we seem to have within our grasp a world where we are indeed judged by the content of our character and not the color of our skin.  The problem, it turns out, is that there is a vast difference between judging one by the color of her skin – and acknowledging the color of one’s skin. It’s the difference, I’ll pull from today’s sermon, between “tolerating” where we just ignore our differences and allowing/challenging ourselves to be transformed by grappling with our differences.

How can we explain the persistence of what looks and feels like racism in a world of colorblindness? And how do we sound the alarm, raise the issue, without being accused of “playing the race card?” Reverend Al Sharpton, on his syndicated radio program – The Hour of Power – put it this way: When we’re playing with a stacked, racial deck – we can’t help but pull out a race card. In other words, in a system that at it’s very foundation has been based on racial difference and racial oppression, this will inevitably be manifested in our institutions and policies. And making cosmetic changes, tinkering with the system, and refusing to acknowledge race won’t deliver us to a post-racial society.

Instead of colorblindness, Alexander suggests color consciousness.

A commitment to color consciousness places faith in our capacity as humans to show care and concern for others, even as we are fully cognizant of race and possible racial differences.

But, in this day and age, this is no easy task. It seems at every turn, Americans are more interested in their individual circumstances than in the collective. And far too often, there is the suggestion that these two – the individual and the collective – are understood as at odds with each other. We are seriously having a national conversation about the value of Medicare and Social Security. Our 21st century values suggest that we should give our elders a stipend and let them fend for themselves – when it runs out, that’s their problem. And who are we that we begrudge struggling families food stamps? How did we get to the point where our idea of public education is to give every child a voucher so that families  can ‘purchase’ their education.

The question I came to in our discussion today is “What kind of people are we?” and What kind of people are we going to be?”

Are we a people who stingily guard what we have? Or are we a people who share with each other understanding that we are all in this together? Are we a people who write folks off when they make a mistake? Or are we a people with the capacity for forgiveness? Are we a people who can live with each other only if we ignore our differences? Or are we a people who are willing to be transformed by those differences?

Breast Density Bill – NOW

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With two trips to Chicago in two months this summer, I’ve been feeling a little financial strain. So when my NOW (National Organization of Women) membership renewal notice came in the mail, I was close to making the decision to let my membership lapse. Of course, I support the ideals and the work of NOW, but I’m a full-time student with part-time employment. I need to be ruthless about my financial decisions.

Still, based on a recent survey that I completed, I was invited to the NOW-NJ Essex county chapter monthly meeting. The meeting is actually a joint meeting of the Essex county chapter, which is the “women of color and allies” (WOCA) chapter, and the NOW-NJ task force on combating racism (CRTF). What an inspiring group of women!  The small group included: college professor, radio producer, lawyer, mother, real estate appraiser, retiree, computer geek…  And in their spare time, they are building alliances to take on racism and sexism in concrete ways in NJ. So of course, I have to put my money where my mouth is.

In NJ, the group is currently working on the NJ Breast Density Bill. In the senate, the bill (S-792) is sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) and Senator Nia H. Gill (D-Essex, Passaic). In the Assembly, the bill A-2022, is sponsored by Assemblyman Troy Singleton (District 7-Burlington), Assemblyman Daniel R. Benson (District 14-Mercer and Middlesex), Assemblyman Gordon M. Johnson (District 37-Bergen), Assemblywoman Pamela R. Lampitt (District 6-Burlington and Camden), and Assemblywoman Annette Quijano (District 20-Union).

You probably don’t know that forty percent of women have dense breast tissue, which is consistently associated with breast cancer risk. And mammography, the standard screening to detect breast cancer, misses cancer in dense breasts half the time. [from Are You  Dense?]  This is of particular concern to African American women who have denser breasts. [Visit the Black Women’s Health Imperative for more.] It’s not a very tricky mental leap to see the connections between breast density and the growing disparities in breast cancer survival. While African American women are at a lower risk for breast cancer than other women, we are more likely to die from the disease. This is in part because Black women are more likely to develop triple negative breast cancer – a particularly aggressive form of the disease, and in part because Black women are more likely to be diagnosed in later stages.

Better early detection can affect at least the latter. The NJ breast density bills can make a difference here. The bills would change current reporting to require that patients, not just doctors, are informed when a mammogram indicates dense breast tissue. In addition, it would require that health insurers cover more comprehensive ultrasound screenings, when a mammogram indicates dense breast tissue, making cancer detection difficult. What this means is that when a woman goes for a mammogram, and the test indicates that she has breast dense tissue, she will get this information and she will be advised of the increased risk of breast cancer. So individual women, and not just their doctors, will be able to make decisions about whether or not to pursue further testing. And if she does decide to have an ultrasound, this will be covered by her health insurance. Thus, a woman’s chances of earlier detection are greatly increased.

So far, the bill has passed the NJ State Senate and is awaiting a hearing in the Assembly. This is definitely on the Essex County NOW agenda. Passage of the bill would make NJ one of only a handful of states with similar bills, including Connecticut, Texas, Virginia, and most recently New York.