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Saturday, January 16, 2010

A Thought For Martin Luther King Jr. Day

"But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force."

Of course, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered these words so eloquently in his famous "I Have a Dream" speech August 28, 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. He was speaking of his awareness of great urgency for racial equality in the "sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent."

I believe the words may be applied to the struggles of anyone who feels the sting of injustice and prejudice. As the nation celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. Day, people might read the same words Dr. King offered as a plea for racial equality and consider our own hometown politics. "We" are the citizens and public servants of Portsmouth, Ohio. The warring factions in our town feel "wronged," no matter their point of view.

Yet, "thirst for freedom" is not meant to be interpreted solely as our ability to offer up "bitterness and hatred" of those who basically desire the same goal -- the goal of a thriving community of committed, mutual respect operating within the resources that will allow for our continued improvement. In 2010, the "higher plane" necessary for planting the fertile environment that may realize its potential is, at best, the hopeful speculation of some, and, at worst, the desired defaced battleground of many. Most citizens seek teamwork and arm-in-arm action to begin immediately.

In his time, Dr. King, a non-violent American leader, suffered continual beat-downs of public opinion; however, the powerful movement that he led was forged in the belief that love and power coexist to offer justice. Any threat to the goal of love was something to be challenged, not ignored. 

Along with help of Rev. Ralph Albernathy, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Rev. Joseph Lowery, Rev. C.K. Steele, Bayard Rustin, Ella Baker, and others, Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference played one of the most vital roles in the history of American civil rights. These people not only changed the face of their struggle, but also altered a blood-drenched, wicked course of American history. The conference leadership argued in disagreement, sacrificed points of contention, but held utmost the common goal of achieving unrestrained justice and freedom through nonviolent means.

In the South, only a few churches had the courage to defy the white-dominated status-quo by affiliating with SCLC, and those that did risked economic retaliation against pastors and other church leaders, arson, and bombings. But consider the work achieved by the few: in the eleven-year period between 1957 and 1968, Dr. King traveled over six million miles and spoke over twenty-five hundred times while appearing wherever injustice, protest, and action called. And, meanwhile, he wrote five books and numerous articles.

January 18 could be a re-dedication of sorts for the welfare and priorities of our Portsmouth community. But without the honest spirit of cooperation, compromise, and concern, the voices of discontent will continue to shake the foundations of our community. Exercising the rights to protest and free speech does not mean a thing without the commitment to the "soul" power of uniting power with love -- both the love of responsible government and the love of fellow human beings. "When will we ever learn... when will we ever learn?" echoes the refrain of "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?"

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