[Editor’s Note: Richard Lawrence received the Moral Courage Award during the Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast at the Kroc Center in San Diego, CA on Janunary 18th, 2016. He delivered a keynote address, which was submitted to SDFP. The following is an edited version of his speech.]
By Rev. Richard Lawrence
During my undergraduate days at Albion College, located in a small town in Michigan, I spent the 1956 Thanksgiving holiday break with my college roommate in his home in the Detroit suburb of Royal Oak, Michigan. When we arrived, my roommate’s father came hurriedly down the stairs to greet us with the news that he was late because “he just had to finish a great book which proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that gorillas are superior to Negroes.”
I stood dumbfounded and silent, and so did my roommate who then proceeded to introduce me to his dad. I shook his hand without saying a word.
Why was I silent?
Because I had not yet engaged in the Civil Rights Movement nor had I met Dr. King yet, and because I had not yet lived through the era of Black Power, Black Consciousness and Black Pride. I did not know that I was black and beautiful and proud and had no reason to apologize for being who I am.
I grew up in an all-white community. Because my mother was a very light complexioned African American and my father was very dark, we ran the gamut of shades of black among the 15 children they produced. I learned how to survive in the white community, and I leaned how to survive in the black community. I am very much at ease in both. However, I am not at home in either. I had invested so much in being accepted by whites that I rarely said a word and took the pain and kept it to myself.
But along came the freedom movement, and after Dr. King’s assassination, the Black Power, Black Consciousness movement. I learned to stand up for who I am and what I believe. I hope to convince you today that we dare not sit in a room where we purport to honor Dr. King unless we are ready to face the challenge of Dr. King’s commitment to stand up for non-violence and economic justice.
Selma To Montgomery
My introduction to the civil rights movement came in Selma, Alabama in 1965 as a participant in the Selma to Montgomery March for voting rights.
“Power without love is reckless and abusive. Love without power is sentimental and anemic.”
I helped to organize a rally to support the Selma marchers among college students at Chicago Teachers College (now Chicago State University) and Wilson Junior College (now Kennedy-King Community College) where I worked as chaplain. We found ourselves persuaded by the speaker from the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC — pronounced “SNICK”), who described “Freedom Summer,” the voter registration campaign, in which Goodman, Cheney and Schwerner participated and were killed for their efforts. The speaker really laid it on us:
“Alabama is one crazy place,” he shouted, and then he paused. “Dr. King has joined SNCC in calling for help from preachers, students and other folks from all across the country to come to Selma and join in another march for freedom. It is no picnic. We just learned that Rev. Jim Reeb, a Unitarian minister from Boston was beaten on the street in Selma today and is in the hospital–but not in Selma, because they refused to treat him there. He is in critical condition in a Montgomery hospital, and the word is he may not make it. Sherriff Clark in Selma said to the press that it was not his job to protect ‘outsiders who come to Alabama to make trouble'”, so if you’re going to Selma, you are on your own.
The students insisted: “We are going to Selma,” and so my VW bus was packed with canned goods, covered with a mattress, and five students and I answered the call to join the fight for freedom.
Dr. King was later to move to Chicago and lead marches for open housing that became the target of some of the most violent demonstrations he had ever experienced. I had joined him in those marches, so I ask you to recognize that Dr. King would want us to think about the most serious problems we face as a nation today. I am suggesting two: economic justice and non-violence/violence.
I have not forgotten occupy, nor have I forgotten labor strikes like the break and roses strike in the textile mills of Lawrence, MA where I served two terms on the city council… and the boycotts of grapes and lettuce to support Cesar Chavez and the farm workers union…. I have not forgotten our ongoing battles here in San Diego to establish a living wage, and health care benefits for all workers, and balancing the profits of doing business with a commitment to community benefits.
So, it should be no surprise that I am so glad Bernie Sanders is running for President, and that he might win Iowa. The more successful his campaign, the more likely we might finally have a serious, national debate about how well our economy is doing on the scales that measure economic justice.
Nobody can convince me that having 1% of the population controlling 99% of this country’s wealth is the best a capitalistic country committed to democracy can do or that we can bail out banks, but cannot house and care for homeless families and veterans. That we can focus so much of profits that we will threaten the life of the planet that supports us. We need a serious commitment to do justice.
The base rung on the ladder of justice is distributive justice, which is a marker to determine if we have been fair. Take any large sample: congress, for example. Our nation is 50% female. Is our Congress? Do our prisons reasonably reflect the make-up of our population as a whole? Do our business leaders? Our military? Our police departments? Those are samples of how distribution justice works and alerts us.
Restorative justice is a higher level of justice and requires us to make up for the mistakes and failures of the past–like slavery. We got a taste of restorative justice after WWII when we took the Marshall Plan to Germany, but I continue to wonder why not to Japan…. and briefly with reconstruction and affirmative action. The best example of restorative justice I can think of is the peace and justice commission in South Africa. I continue to wonder what life in the United States would be like had we such a commission here to weigh how we recover from slavery, racism and discrimination.
At the top of the scale is creative justice or love which Dr. King demands we think about in combination with power:
“We have got to get this right. Power without love is reckless and abusive. Love without power is sentimental and anemic.”
Dr. King echoes the call of the Prophet Micah: Do Justice. Love Mercy (Kindness). Walk humbly with your God.
We like to think today that Dr. King was loved and supported by everyone… that we were all in for him. I’d suggest his assassination ought to cast a final and fairly heavy cloud over that thought. Dr. King struggled with the question of police power/police forces–local and national, and Dr. King implores us to dig deep and think long about non-violence.
We have a problem with our police forces across the land. No more than sheriffs in the South had a right to beat peaceful demonstrators because the community they believed they were serving thought demonstrators to be less than human.
We like to think today that Dr. King was loved and supported by everyone… I’d suggest his assassination ought to cast a final and fairly heavy cloud over that thought. Dr. King struggled with the question of police power/police forces–local and national, and Dr. King implores us to dig deep and think long about non-violence.
Do police officers today have the right to dispense with troublemakers in any way they choose? Police officers retain and restrain so the court can deliberate and make thoughtful judgments and deliver appropriate punishment if the offender is found guilty. Death sentences nor any other punishment should be delivered on the streets at the hands of arresting officers. “Black Lives Matter” is a reminder to us that all lives matter. (James Orange, Richard Frankling Hagen, Chicago)
And if we go back and look at the issue of justice and discover that for some reason the number of people killed on the street represent a disproportionate number of blacks or youth or hippies or gays or women…. We need to do justice. We need to find a cure for whatever or from wherever that injustice originates. Police officers and citizens alike need to make a commitment to non-violence.
We also have a problem with our military policing power and need to face the fact that we cannot bomb away the enemies we face today. Our enemy today sneaks up on us… on unsuspecting victims across the globe and shoots workers in San Bernadino or bombs or guns down uninvolved people in cafes in France or crashes airplanes into workers in the World Trade Center Towers.
I am ashamed when one of those terrorist bombers is an American and I cannot help but think that somehow the central message there is that we have failed… that I have failed. That an injustice has been done that we need to fix.
Malcolm X and Dr. King
Malcolm X and Dr. King debated philosophies of social change like Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois did. At the heart of the matter was the issue of love and power. Dr. King finally clarified for me the relationship between the two when he said, “We have to get this right: power without love is reckless and abusive. Love without power is sentimental and anemic.”
Love, Power, Justice
Will you join me in ending our reflections on the life and work of Dr. King by looking around and going to folks to see here today who have worked for economic justice and non-violence. Call out their names and reach out to them. “Thank you for your service.”
March proudly if your name is called so we might all appreciate how many of us there are who are working to celebrate Dr. King’s challenge to overpower chaos by creating a community built on economic justice and non-violence. If no one calls your name and you want to stand up and march toward the beloved community, come on by and let me shake your hand and thank you also for your service.
I want to close with a quote from Dr. King’s letter form the Birmingham jail: “If I have said anything in this letter that is an overstatement of the truth and is indicative of an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything in this letter that is an understatement of the truth and is indicative of my having patience that makes me patient with anything that is less than justice [sic], I beg God to forgive me.” Amen.
Rev. Richard Lawrence is a retired civil rights leader and an affordable housing advocate. His list of honors includes the San Diego Housing Federation’s “Lifetime Achievement Award” and a San Diego City Council declaration making November 10, 2013 “Richard Lawrence Day.”