This address in honor of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day was presented on January 16, 2017, at Ho’oheau Park in Hilo, Hawai’i. I am tremendously grateful to have been invited to participate in the program.
It is confession time: I have spent too long silent.
If you’d like excuses, and if if you don’t, I can provide some: I thought the victory had been won: by thousands and tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of marching feet when I was still a child. I thought the victory had been won.
I thought the victory had been won: by attorneys contesting unjust statutes for the highest courts, and winning their cases. I thought the victory had been won.
I thought the victory had been won: by people of color coming out to vote with courage and commitment. I thought the victory had been won.
I thought the victory had been won: by the repentance of haole hearts.
I was wrong.
The statistics told me the truth. And as long as the rates of incarceration, or poverty, or ill health correlate to a race, the victory has not been won.
People I love told me the truth. And as long as stories told by people of color in their encounters with authority fail to match the stories I tell about my encounters with authority, the victory has not been won.
When the President-elect condemns John Lewis faster than he condemns David Duke, the victory has not been won.
And it has gotten worse.
In my lifetime, I have heard public racial epithets fade away, as those who spoke them paid a social or economic or political price. And in my lifetime, I have heard them return, as those who spoke them failed to pay a social price that they were not willing to pay.
The words, and even more the deeds, the policies, and even more the structures, must face a social, economic, or political price that they are not willing to pay, or the victory will not be won.
In his Letter from the Birmingham Jail, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote: “My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral high light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.
“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
I would add now, that we are finding through painful experience that freedom may be denied again by a resurgent oppressor.
I must not be silent. You must not be silent. We must not be silent. And the time to speak is now.
Dr. King also wrote, in that same Letter from the Birmingham Jail: “More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge the time is always ripe to do right.”
The time is always ripe to do right.
The time is ripe to reject religious tests for entry into our nation. The time is ripe to demand that citizens not face hurdle after hurdle to exercise their right and responsibility to vote. The time is ripe to demand that health care not be limited to those with wealth, and that those who are sick may obtain the treatment which is their due as human beings. The time is ripe to do right.
I must not be silent. You must not be silent. We must not be silent. The time is ripe to do right.
Thank you very much.