David N. Dinkins Remembers Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

By David Dinkins

I am thankful that each year begins anew with Dr. King’s birthday falling right at its dawning. It serves as a reminder of how far we have come and a renewal of our commitment to go the next mile with the new year ahead.

This April 4th will mark 50 years since that fateful day in Memphis, Tennessee. Some, regrettably, only think about Dr. King’s vision when his birthday rolls around, others, only once-in-a-while. I believe, however, that most decent people share his vision and keep it alive in our hearts and minds every day. It is a very real vision to many of us. And no one sees it more clearly than those for whom he gave his last measure – the working class.

Dr. King set a moral tone for our people, our nation, and the world, when he chose to dedicate his life to the long slog of moving all of us out of the crushing divides of that time and fully into the light. As he put it on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963:

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed ‘we hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.”

Some believe it was God’s will that Dr. King was with us for a mere 39 years. He seemed to carry an acute awareness of the fact that he would not get to the Promised Land alongside his people, he told us that he feared no man because, as he said, he had been to the mountaintop. His eyes, he said, had “seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” We must stand up for the vision he held for ALL OF US.

While these are strange times we currently find ourselves living through — tremendously disappointing and upsetting, they should inspire us to attend to the unfinished business of the Civil Rights Movement and move us forward to continue to demand solutions. Dr. King wrote:

“We will have to repent in this generation, not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.”

The relentless character of intolerance, racism, and division in our society today is appalling, but even more disheartening is the often accompanying silence. During slavery, it was good people who acknowledged the humanity of slaves and offered support during their struggle for freedom. There must always be good people willing to speak out against racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia, but oftentimes, too many remain silent:

…Too many good people were silent when a ship named the Saint Louis, filled with people desperately trying to escape the horrors of the holocaust, was turned away by American immigration authorities.

…Too many good people were silent during World War II, when 120,000 Japanese-Americans were imprisoned, and their property summarily confiscated, solely because of their ethnic heritage – a fate that, it is important to note, did not befall Italian Americans or German Americans.

  • Too many good people were silent when a deranged United States senator named Joseph McCarthy built a false reputation for himself by destroying the reputations of others.
  • Too many good people were silent when a form of legalized slavery was instituted in South Africa. Our government called that period of apartheid “constructive engagement.” And while people knew it was wrong, they were silent.
  • Too many good people were silent, as the United States government shamefully rejected Haitian refugees in the early 1990’s. If these refugees made it through the shark-infested waters, they were confined in something akin to concentration camps, while those from elsewhere in the world were greeted with resettlement assistance.
  • Too many have been too silent for too long, and too many others have paid the price for that silence. Breaking the silence is uncomfortable, and may involve some risk. But again, the words of Dr. King come to mind:

It’s also important to recognize that we do not stand alone when standing up. I have been fortunate to have received the support and encouragement of many good people throughout and beyond my life in public service. Not one of us managed to get to where we are without the help of those who came before us.

“the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

We say that everybody stands on somebody’s shoulders… We must each be sure to give back some measure of that which we have received – whether in the daily conduct of our professions, or in nurturing a younger person, participating in a community program, or building movements toward broader sweeping change. However we choose to give ourselves to others, it matters. It is in this way that we pay homage to those who went before us…by resolving to draw upon their legacy to build a better future for those who come after us.

Dr. King helped pave the road for our world go from one where people of color were sent to the back door and back of the bus…to one where the American people elected a person of color to the highest office in the land and where he and his family entered the White House – their 8-year-residence – through the front door! Dr. King’s vision still guides us down freedom’s road towards the promise of America, as he taught us to have faith. When Dr. King accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on October 14, 1964, he said:

“I accept this award with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that ‘isness’ of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the ‘oughtness’ that forever confronts him… I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.”

“I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.”

Again, I am thankful that each year begins anew with Dr. King’s birthday falling right at its dawning. It serves as a reminder of how far we have come and a renewal of our commitment to go the next mile with the new year ahead. His was a dream so strong that death could not diminish it, and his life continues to inspire us today, and every year, to do our part to move it forward.

Let January 15, 2018 remind us of our mission to carry his vision forward to our youth, to refresh their hearts and souls with the basic idea that we are our brothers’ keepers, and to remind us that we must all act to preserve, protect and promote the right of every human being to the full enjoyment of life.

Let January 15, 2018 remind us to pierce the silence and move into the light.

Honorable David Dinkins was the 106th Mayor, City of New York.

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