Each year around the end of January and throughout the month of February, we celebrate the life and the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and we remember our history as African Americans. Even on this day, one day after the 45th anniversary of the tragic assassination of our dear brother Martin, we manage to again celebrate his life, even in the wake of his death. And each year around these times I reflect on Dr. King’s place in history as the greatest drum major for justice the world has ever seen, and I wonder what he would have to say about the world we live in today. I wonder… I wonder if King would be pleased with our progress as a people, or would he be disappointed in the fact that many of the social justice issues he championed in the 50’s and the 60’s still exist. People of color, how far would Dr. King say we’ve come? Just months after the 2nd term inauguration of Barack H. Obama, the first black president of the United States have we finally overcome?? Or with black folk being disproportionately affected by unemployment, health disparities, mass incarceration, gun violence, and poverty just to name a few…how far have we really come? As people of faith, what would Rev. King say about the way we treat each other as brothers and sisters in Christ? What would he say about what’s become of the church? Your Churches? My church, St. Stephen’s Lutheran Church? You know as a worshiping Lutheran I’m partial to the fact that MLK shares the name of that whom which Lutherans follow, Martin Luther, leader of the Protestant reformation. You see Martin King Jr. was originally Michael King Jr., named after his father, and it wasn’t until King was 5 years of age that his father chose to change both of their names to Martin Luther. Dr. King’s father must have known there’s power in the name and hoped that his son would one day grow tall enough to wear the crown of a reformer and leader of a great movement, just like Martin Luther. And so today, right now, present day, what would Rev. King say to people of faith about some of today’s most pressing issues in the African American community? What would he have to say about the disparaging health status, particularly the HIV and AIDS epidemic among people of color? About mass incarceration, and gun violence of today? What would Martin say about education, or a lack thereof among black and brown people? What would he say about these issues and more importantly what would he say the church’s role is in the resolution of them? What would he say? I think ….
….He’d say we’ve got a long, long, way to go but we’ve come too far to turn back now. Almost 32 years and 30 million deaths later, HIV and AIDS is the fight that King never saw coming. Yes, Martin had a dream, but he could have never dreamed of such a fight in his day and yet decades later…..
34 million people worldwide are living with HIV; 1.7 million of which will succumb to AIDS and those vacancies will be filled with another 2.5 million newly infected individuals. My God! Dr. King would have something to say about this I contend…and he would be especially concerned that 1.8 mill of our compatriots right here at home are living with HIV, and although African Americans are only 14% of the U.S. population, we make up half of new cases as well as half of the people currently living with HIV. Yet another form of racial inequality King would say. He would say it’s a tragedy that AIDS is the leading cause of death of black women ages 25-34, due to factors such as poverty which black women overwhelmingly find themselves in as they attempt to hold down single parent households; it’s sexually transmitted infections which black women contract more of, and receive less treatment due to their limited access to health care. Dr. King once said, “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.” It’s black men on the “down low” who have been closeted by a society that has yet to fully affirm them, forcing them to lead false yet more accepting lifestyles with women. It’s even the mass incarceration of black men where 1 in 3 of us will be imprisoned in our lifetime, and reintegrated into society with no mention of what took place while on the inside. Did you share needles for drugs or tattoos?? Did you have sex with a man who could have possibly infected you with HIV, an infection you’ve unknowingly passed on to the wife that you’ve returned home to? This is HIV in Black America, and HIV in Black America is a social justice issue. It would have certainly been King’s issue and I believe he would expect it to be an issue of great priority for people of faith.
Not to mention mass incarceration, not just relative to HIV and AIDS but addressing a much larger issue of the inequality of our judicial system and its effect on African American social destruction. Although the U. S. accounts for less than 5% of the world’s population, it houses 25% of the world’s prisoners, making the U.S. the #1 incarcerator. And you can guess majority of those prisoners are black men in their 20’s and 30’s, prime years for seeking higher learning, beginning careers, and establishing foundations upon which families are built. The Southern Center of Human Rights explains that “Mass incarceration has resulted in such a concentration of imprisonment in low-income African-American communities that sending those who commit crimes to prison now does more harm than good in those neighborhoods. Researchers confirm that the cumulative effects of mass incarceration – that is…broken families, weakened social bonds, distrust of police, and compromised economic opportunities – have reached a tipping point, resulting in an increase rather than a decrease in crime in disadvantaged neighborhoods. It’s the New Jim Crow. And as civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander writes in her book of the same name, The New Jim Crow represents the installation of a legal racial caste system. You see here in American we like to believe that since the courts ruled discrimination by race unethical and illegal many moons ago, we now live in a “post racial” society. However the courts have not made it illegal to warehouse black and brown men in prisons, majority of which are for non-violent offenses. Dr. King would know something about being jailed for being non-violent…I’m sure he could relate. You see if we can imprison black men at a disproportionate rate, labeling them as felons and subsequently second class citizens, society can directly discriminate against them by criminal history, allowing indirect and lawful discrimination by race. The vehicle for doing so has been the “War on Drugs.” It’s a fact that rates of drug use and possession among blacks and whites are almost identical. It’s also a fact that blacks are more likely to be arrested, tried, and found guilty more often than whites for the same offenses, and when whites are found guilty, their sentences will be less severe than that of blacks. It’s a fact that a black man with no criminal history is less likely to find employment than a white man with the same skill set and a criminal background. That ain’t right! Mass Incarceration of black men is a social justice issue, and for that it would have been Martin Luther King’s issue, and he would expect for it to be of great priority to people of faith.
As should gun violence; Gun violence right here in Chicago. Yet I don’t think that our non-violent brother would be able to comprehend the fact that much of the violence that takes place in our neighborhoods is violence against one another! Considering much of the oppression King endured was often by people of a different color, class, or creed. We were all we had. And to think, today our biggest fight is amongst ourselves. Our young people at that! It’s certainly an issue of gun control in this country where the U.S. population totals 315 Million people…with our gun population not far behind at roughly 300 Million guns owned. That’s nearly one gun for every person in this country, and those are only the ones we know about. Martin once said, “”The choice is no longer between violence and nonviolence, but nonviolence and nonexistence.” The words of Martin Luther King Jr. and the role he set for churches in leading a nonviolent response to civil injustice are as applicable today as they were in the 1960s and I don’t think we’d have to guess how a posthumous Martin would react to the amount of guns on our streets and the senseless shootings they produce. After all in his lifetime there was Malcolm and there was JFK before the Rev. Dr. King was himself the victim of a coward’s bullet. And yet, 45 years later, I still believe Dr. King would preach a message of hope. A message of hope founded in fathering the fatherless. A message of hope grounded in mentorship and discipleship. A message of hope deeply rooted in the wisdom and the guidance of our elders. A message rooted in Education.
Education may be the answer to all of our problems. More than 1/3 of new HIV infections this year will be among individuals with a high school diploma or less. Education. Young black males without a high school diploma are more likely to be in prison or in jail on any given day than to be working. In the same vein, you can find more black men in prisons than you can on college campuses. It doesn’t help that tax payers spend roughly $48,000 per inmate annually vs only about $8000 per college student. Since 1980, California alone has built just 1 college campus and 21 prisons. And today prisons are being built in areas near schools that chart the poorest 4th grade performances of students. That’s right, based on 4th grade statistics, potential private prison owners can estimate the number of 4th graders that will find themselves in the court room instead of the classroom in the not so distant future. Education. But what are we to do when politicians are closing 50 of our schools right here in Chicago? Why is it that every time budget cuts need to be made, education for our black and brown kids is the first to suffer? But perhaps a better question is how do we fight against this??
You know I had a dream once and conveniently enough Dr. King was in it. And in this dream he asked me a question, he asked me: “When did segregation in schools finally end?” And I paused…and I thought about it…and I said in 1954 with passing of Brown v Board of education. And he said WRONG. Schools weren’t fully integrated until almost 10 years later as a result of the Civil Rights Movement. And I asked, well what are you saying Dr. King? And he said no judge, no court can be left to decide the fate our people.” And then I woke up.
My Brothers and Sisters in Christ, it is going to take a grass roots movement comparable to that of the Civil Rights Movement if we plan to positively effect change in the African American Community. But who will be our Martin, you ask? And I ask you, WHO is the Martin of the Gay Rights movement??? I bet you can’t name him or her. If you wanted to cripple the Gay Rights movement by, heaven forbid, assassinating their “leader”, who would that be??? You can’t name that person. But you can name and readily identify their movement. That’s because their progress has been a result of a collective effort of many, and that same effort is needed to unify our community. You and I, people of faith, WE are the Martin’s and Malcolm’s and Rosa Parks. The CHURCH. The church must be radically inclusive, radically reconciling, and radically loving, understanding that no matter how many antiretroviral treatments are available, the healing of HIV and AIDS won’t fully begin until we treat those infected and affected with the love of God. No matter how many laws are changed or made “equal” to debilitate the War on Drugs, the mass incarceration of black men won’t see its end until we meet the least of these with God’s words of Love from the gates of heaven, so they’ll never have to see the gates of hell. Prison gates. God tells us that no weapon formed against us shall prosper so it won’t matter how many guns are on our streets if we preach the sermon that Jesus preached on the Mount, where Jesus uplifts the embodiment of peace. It won’t even matter if they close every last school if we as people of faith not only teach the next generation in reading and arithmetic, but teach that they too are Disciples of Christ and disciples make disciples.
And so, 45 years later, as we remember The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in life and in death, what would he say to people of faith about the issues affecting the African American community?? I think he’d say…we’ve got a long, long way to go, but we’ve come too far to turn back now…never forgetting that we’ve only come this far, by faith.