STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — January 22, 2011. Engagement, responsibility, civic participation, immersion in the body politic — whatever phrase you’d care to use, this sense of being a part of society, an actor in an emerging future, a voice in the historical project, is what America and its peoples are lacking. This missing piece, these missing persons, is what the Movement for peace and justice, the Struggle against poverty, racism and war desperately needs. And on a frigid Saturday in New York City, several eloquent speakers, each in their own way, urged a group of celebrants to get busy.
The occasion was a Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration, held at the College of Staten Island’s Williamson Theater.
As the audience took their seats, shaking off the bitter cold, classical baritone Anthony Turner heated things up with an impressive and inspiring rendition of “Lift Every Voice.”
Equally impassioned were the speakers who followed Turner.
CSI Provost Bill Fritz called for a new era of civic engagement, stressing that his institution was ready to help.
“One of our new values that we have just endorsed is community engagement. We actively work to instil the value of civic participation and are proud of our leadership role for Staten Island and beyond,” Fritz said.
The event was co-sponsored by City Councilwoman Debi Rose. And Rose was fired up — pleased to be a symbol but emphatic in her urging the crowd to take their place in the ongoing effort to build a new society, a society based on “equity and equality.”
“I stand here before you today as the first African-American elected official in the history of Staten Island, serving under the first African-American president of the United States,” she said.
Rose spoke about the ongoing construction of the MLK memorial in Washington, D.C. It will reside between the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials — and is due to be unveiled on August 28, 2011.
“Never before has a non-president, a person of color, been so honored — to have a place on the Mall,” Debi Rose said. And yet, she noted, we as a nation have a long way to go to fulfill Dr. King’s Dream.
“I believe that we are all the beneficiaries of his Dream. And with that comes great responsibility. He left us a blueprint for equality and a clarion call for action. We must invest in our selves, our children and our communities. It is our obligation and responsibility,” Rose said.
“We must learn how to to use our collective voice, to work together and with others, and direct our efforts to improving the quality of life for all,” she said.
Former New York City comptroller Bill Thompson agreed.
Thompson spoke about Rose’s resolve – winning an election that others said was unwinnable, and making history in the process. It took three tries to get there but Rose never wavered.
“When you talk about coming back from losing an election, she serves as an inspiration to me,” Thompson quipped.
The 57-year-old Thompson spoke about the importance of “looking back” at the historical situation in which King found himself. Thompson talked about Brooklyn in the 1950s, when his father was regional head of the NAACP and the first state senator from Brooklyn (in 1965). There has been substantial, qualitative and quantifiable change.
Thompson said that King himself had urged northerners to fight segregation, not in Alabama, but in the north — where racism did not have the legal sanction of the Jim Crow laws but nonetheless had a major impact on employment, housing and “defacto segregation in the public schools.” Thompson described witnessing acts of civil disobedience in New York City, acts of courage designed to break the employment barrier, which blocked African-American access to jobs all the way into the 1970s. During this period of U.S. history, Al Sharpton, at 14 years of age, was arrested for civil disobedience. Sharpton was bailed out of jail by Thompson’s father.
In a time that could be construed as largely ahistorical (in the Marcusean sense – a “One Dimensional Society” that has had the “subversive contents of memory” erased by consumerism and “False Media”) Thompson is able to appreciate the multigenerational aspect of the Struggle for human rights.
Thompson urged the crowd to “let the children understand” the history of the Struggle, in the south and in New York City — so that the youth will realize that change is not granted, it is earned. And that there is still much work to be done.
Thompson’s father, a returning World War Two veteran, had been unable to eat with the white soldiers in the Army mess hall in Washington, D.C. German POWs could eat there but African-American veterans could not. And yet, this man lived to see an African-American elected to the presidency. The progress is undeniable and yet Thompson Senior recognizes the job is far from finished. As does his son who commented on the validity of the “post-racial” idea espoused by President Obama. Are we there yet? Thompson asked the crowd.
“Well, maybe not quite, maybe not yet,” Thompson said.
Thompson spoke about how unemployment and foreclosure continue to hit the African-American and Latino communities far harder than any other.
“So when we look at Dr. King’s Dream, has it been realized yet? When we look at economic inequality or the need for economic equality — no, we still have a ways to go,” Thompson said.
Anthony Turner’s second performance, an inspirational medley performed a capella as the spotlit Turner performed literally in the shadow of a larger than life image of Dr. King, was followed by the most poignant speaker.
Carolyn McKinstry spoke about her work with the historic Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, her presence at meetings and marches with Dr. King, and the traumatic experience of surviving the bombing of her historic church in 1963 — surviving when four of her friends did not.
To give the audience an idea of the obstacles people of color in Alabama faced, McKinstry read from the segregation laws of Birmingham. The excerpt McKinstry read aloud was a regulation that required a physical barrier and separate entrance be in place to separate whites and people of color in local restaurants. This and other Jim Crow laws were what drew King to Birmingham, what brought him to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.
The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was the first Black church built in Birmingham. It cost $36,000 — a sum that was raised by the congregation, including former slaves. The church has long served as a symbol of resistance to oppression — its clergy had been resisting discrimination for over ten years prior to King’s arrival.
But King would leave his mark.
When King arrived he and his colleagues spoke in depth about the philosophy of nonviolence. His team provided descriptions of the anticipated police response to the proposed march — violence. And King told the congregation that police violence must be met with nonviolence.
McKinstry and others ended their meeting with King by singing Movement songs. King told the group that they would know when it was time to march. The very next day a man stood outside McKinstry’s school with a sign that said, “It’s Time.”
The use of high-powered fire hoses and Army tanks against the marchers, and the mass arrests, prompted President Kennedy to urge America to look in the mirror. And America responded. But as some Americans called out for justice others turned to violence. Kennedy’s comments were followed by the infamous bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Unique because it claimed lives, it was nonetheless just one bombing in a long cacophony of hatred.
“Bombing was a way of life in Birmingham,” McKinstry told the crowd.
The bombings started in 1948, when a Black family bought a house in a white neighborhood, crossing an invisible line. The police made no arrests. And so the bombings continued.
“Somewhere in the 60s we had over 80 unsolved bombings, it was a way of life. And when people would come and try to talk to us about Terrorism after 9/11, certainly not to minimize anything that happened on 9/11 or the pain that was felt, we said ‘Terrorism didn’t start on 9/11.’ It was a way of life in Birmingham.”
What made the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church different was the result: it claimed the lives of four children, friends of McKinstry who died in the church bathroom. King eulogized the girls as “beautiful, innocent and unoffending.”
King also predicted that the victims’ “Blood would fully come to be seen as a redemptive force,” McKinstry said.
McKinstry told the crowd that she often gets asked if things have changed in Birmingham.
“People will ask sometime, ‘Has Birmingham changed, are things different?’ and I say, ‘Well, we’ve taken the signs down.’”
McKinstry believes that it was the lost children who broke the back of official segregation, they were indeed the redemptive force that took down the signs on the water fountains and rest rooms. But the work is unfinished and the task is daunting because there is not the level of involvement that powered the civil rights struggle of the Sixties.
“Clergy was fully engaged, fully involved in everything that was going on. The ministers, they gave financial and human resource support. The community was engaged as you can see by the marching of the children. And also just by the citizens who cooperated when they said don’t ride the bus…don’t do whatever,” McKinstry said.
“So, when we talk about being post-racial, when we talk about, have we realized Dr. King’s Dream, I think if we look at the three things that he felt were necessary to acquire to move to the Beloved Community [ ending poverty, racism and war ] we really begin to see that we are really not close even, to the Beloved Community.”
McKinstry told the crowd that she believes that, to realize King’s Dream, the Movement must, “Reaffirm our commitment to the concept of nonviolence,” realizing that, “We can only dispel darkness with light.”
She stressed that Movement activists must, “Collectively assert our dignity and our worth.”
She urged the crowd to “become dissatisfied with the status quo” and to fight for quality education and health care — both of which remain distant goals.
Above all, she urged a commitment to engagement.
“We need to re-engage, all of us, the one important component — the engagement of the children, the engagement of the adults, the engagement of the faith community, the engagement of the political leaders — everyone in Birmingham was engaged. They were part of what was going on,” she said.
“This is what America needs — to be restructured, reshaped and changed — America, we must be born again.”