Speech at 1/21/13 MLK Celebration

Text of Speech given by Susan Anglada Bartley at the New Beginnings MLK Celebration in Portland, Oregon on January 21st, 2013. (Broadcast and webcast by KBOO Community Radio)

statue of mlk

Thank you very much to Kenneth Berry and to all of the staff and volunteers here at New Beginnings Conference Center for the opportunity to speak today. In preparation for this event, I spent time examining the writings of Dr. King. I’d like to begin with a quote from Dr. King’s sermon entitled “Loving Your Enemies,”

“Love is the most durable power in the world. This creative force, so beautifully exemplified in the life of our Christ, is the most potent instrument available in mankind’s quest for peace and security. Napolean Bonaparte, the great military genius, looking back over his years of conquest, is reported to have said; Alexander, Ceasar, Charlemagne, and I have built great empires. But upon what did they depend? They depended on force. But centuries ago, Jesus started an empire that was built on love, and even to this day millions would die for him. Who can doubt the veracity of these words? The great military leaders of the past have gone, and their empires have crumbled and burned to ashes, but the empire of Jesus, built solidly and majestically on the foundation of love is still growing.”

Once again, the historical moment that we are living in requires us to consider how brotherhood might defeat enmity, how love might conquer hatred, and how peace might quell violence.

The conditions around us – all people of every faith, nationality, religion, and race, require us to think about the role of violence in our lives. My first memory of violence comes in the form of generational grief – a memory passed to me by my mother through story – I hold shattered images of my grandfather, an autoworker and former Irish boxer in Detroit, shot and killed by a random murderer by the roadside in the middle of the night. Like many of you, I am aware of the impact that the violent death of a loved one has on a family.

Violence touched my childhood too—I remember when a gun shot pierced the floor of my uncle’s house in one of the toughest neighborhood’s in Buffalo, New York when armed robbers intruded, narrowly missing him. I remember the day when my classmate, Wykeshia Bolden was shot in the crossfire of a drug battle. As school children, we dedicated a song to her, and promised to never forget.

As a teacher, gun violence has touched the lives of those close to me. Fernando Chavez lives in my memory as a bright student who struggled to make it past the difficulties of his troubled youth, –and just when he almost got there, a thief with a gun broke into the house that Fernando lived in. When he jumped out to protect the family that was providing him shelter, a gunman ended his life.

As a mother, gun violence touched my life last week when two men toting military assault weapons stood outside my baby’s daycare to celebrate their right to bear arms, causing the children to huddle in the backroom, and the teachers to lock down the school in fear of another violent incident.

It is impossible to discuss the great work of Dr. King without sharing his message of non-violence, non-conformity, and hope. While it may be hard to hear about violence, and to truly reflect on the ways in which it affects our lives, please let us remember that Dr. King asked us to be honest about the existence of violence and to fight it with love.

In his sermon, “Transformed Non-Conformist” he writes, “Only through our inner spiritual transformation do we gain the strength to fight vigorously the evils of the world in a humble and loving spirit. The transformed non-conformist, moreover, never yields to the passive sort of patience which is an excuse to do nothing.”

Can we each take the time to consider how violence has touched our lives, our family histories, our loved ones, and our inner selves? Where is that place in each of our hearts that needs a safe harbor, a nest of healing, a silent mountaintop? Where is that place in you, friend, that knows the gun shot, feels the beating of fists, hears the cry of children? Where is that place in you that knows the sound of stomping feet, the pain of cruel words or deeds, and the impression that they leave on the heart, and their weight on the soul?

Today we remember Dr. King, and the hundreds of thousands of members of that great generation who were willing to make sacrifices in the name of love, equity, justice, and peace. Among them were educators, musicians, activists, pastors, teachers, small children, mothers, elderly people, and those of all faiths.

niagara river

In my life, I had the opportunity to walk in the leadership of a great educator who walked in the footsteps of Dr. King, taking each step in love. Dr. Charles Hopson was a great mentor who passed this year. At a time in my life where I was searching desperately for a job, Dr. Hopson picked me up and placed me in my position; on his shoulders I stand. He lived his life with the goal of bringing equity for all children in public education. My favorite memory of Dr. Hopson was in seeing the Promised Land together. Through a grant, we had the opportunity to travel to Buffalo, New York, to visit schools before transforming our school. On the trip, we took the Underground Railroad tour, which took us to this spot—the guide explained that this was the exact spot on the river where escaped enslaved people would be hidden in carriages of white allies from a local church. When a light flashed in the middle of the river, the escapees would move quickly to a boat which took them half way across the river to where the boat with the lantern waited in Canadian waters. As soon as they crossed to the other boat, they were officially safe and free.

When I look at this picture, I remember that the promised land many not be dripping with gold and pearls and diamonds. The promised land may come to us on a cold, grey day. We might be most likely to find it in the lowest of places, but if we keep on going it really does await us.

On the other side of this river, I had the opportunity to visit an African-Canadian graveyard. The guide told us that one worn gravestone held the remains of a man who had most likely been taken from Africa, survived the brutality of the Caribbean, lived as a slave in the South, escaped to the North on foot, and made it to Canada by crossing this very river. While his name was worn, one word shone proudly on that stone. It said “Landowner”. When reflecting on life’s difficulties, and challenges I’ve faced, I think of the legacy of those who came before me, and I ask “What is that I say I can’t do?”

In considering how to live the legacy of Dr. King, and of our ancestors, let us remember that firearms are the very cruel tools of encorporation used by Europeans to overpower African people. Firearms were used to humiliate, intimidate, overpower, and imprison Dr. King and many members of his movement. Firearms continue to be used to police African American and Latino communities, and firearms are responsible for the deaths of many young people in impoverished inner city environments where Dr. King’s message is overshadowed by the drama of poverty, and the cyclical parade of violence paying for violence. We stand on the shoulders of those who faced gun-toting police with the well-organized power of love to win the civil rights that we all enjoy today. As we come together to support the work Dr. King and our collective American ancestors who paved our way to greater liberty, let us support President Barack Obama in his efforts to lessen the violence by removing assault weapons from our national community. Let us also take action at the school level by asking for alternatives to violence programs, better mental health services for all children, and greater access to higher education. In calling our legislators, speaking with our school officials, friends and neighbors, let us remember our responsibility to the people who came before us, and that we must create a solid, peaceful place to stand for the next generation—when they look at our shoulders, let’s not allow them to see us ducking, let’s stand tall, and exemplify the everlasting power of non-violent resistance, non-conformity, and most of all, love.

Thank you.

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