The Reverand Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day Key Note at Mt. Zion Baptist Church, Seattle

I am pleased to post this guest blog by Barbara Thomas, who I am lucky to know because about 22 years ago we started to work together as doctor and patient. Barbara is a brilliant and creative artist, writer, and so much more.  A view of what she creates and shares is on her web site here. This year, on January 16, 2015, she was the keynote speaker at the Reverand Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Seattle. It is important to note that Mt. Zion has played an important role in the Seattle civil rights movement since at least 1940 (more about that in another post).  For today, here is Barbara’s speech.

          Dream and the Dream Catcher–MLK Day—Barbara Earl Thomas –

January 16, 2015

I am humbled and amazed to be here today to speak in honor of the day and on the occasion when we all pause for a moment to consider what this day means to us and our nation. I thank first Jill Wakefield, Chancellor of the Seattle Colleges for the invitation, Earnest Phillips, Seattle Colleges Executive Director of Marketing and Communications for the great support and Senior Pastor Aaron Williams for continuing the grand tradition of having this address at the Mount Zion Baptist Church.

I am additionally honored to stand at the podium in Mount Zion Baptist Church, led so long by our very own Samuel B. McKinney, who in 1961 arranged and hosted the one and only visit to Seattle that Dr. King would ever make. They stood together two human beings—with all the other human beings stated their case, shaped the vision that has sustained us all of these years. Just imagine: the humanness of their being—mere mortals (like you and me) facing that Mount Olympus-sized dream.

In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed a dream so eloquently that we are often left speechless in its wake.   When he told us that, “This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality—1963 is not an end but a beginning,” that is where I have to start every day. We stand, each one of us, as a link in the line from that place Dr. King called the beginning. On that day we were given a vision, hope and a star to reach, not knowing in that moment, in1963, all that would befall us as a people or nation. Even as we mourned the assassination of Medgar Evers we could not foresee the assassinations of John F. Kennedy nor take in the possibility that Dr. King would himself be mowed down, his death, killing hope in its wake.   We could not imagine the depths of Vietnam and all the wars that would bring us to September 11, 2001 when the world as we knew it stopped, stunned into the realization that it had come to this. If we didn’t know before, we know now we are in this spaceship together.

At the moment Dr. King delivered those now immortal words—“I may not get there with you,” he faced thousands of hopeful people who helped to make that particular moment possible. I do not diminish Dr. King when I say he (we) would not have gotten here without all of those who took up the seemingly small but crucial tasks. Today we must remember the John Lewises and Fredrick Reeses, the Ralph Abernathys, Ella Bakers and Bayard Ruskins who worked tirelessly off the podium, to the side, out of the spotlight. Dr. King was carrying their torch and he spoke for them. I pay homage to all of those who got on buses, on trains or in their cars to mark that moment. But I also remember the mothers and fathers who were unable to attend but kept the home fires burning, attended their children, kept the school doors open, worked their jobs, and guarded the voting booth or gave a hand to the less strong along the way.

When I think of the small steps, I start with my very own existence by way of my grandparents, Doc and Ethel Lee, and people like them, who came here in the early 1940s would eventually send for the daughters – in my case, Lula Mae who would become my mother and, her sister, Annie. They, like the grandparents and parents of so many, migrated here from Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas and all parts south to start anew.  They came looking to work hard and find that American Dream. My father would arrive by way of the military, having completed the 9th grade and my mother the 11th. One might say why did she quit? She was so close, only a year away from graduation. Ah, that was a subtle custom, a brutal dream killer. If you were Black, in that place, the 11th grade was as high as you were allowed to go. She was stopped, sure enough, but she did not quit. She simply lifted her dream and moved it forward to her children. Little did I know that I was her/their dream-catcher. I held their dream, never knowing how full I was of their hope. I, and most of my classmates, could not in our young lives appreciate or imagine the gravity of what we represented to those people who sent us out of the house everyday. We could not decipher the pride on their faces, the lilt in their voices as they spoke among themselves about us.

When we graduated it was not an individual accomplishment but a family triumph. Only years later would I understand and feel the magnitude of what now seems like such a small thing to hope for a child. I did not suffer the hardscrabble, sharecropping, cotton-picking life of my parents and grandparents. This was, by no means, luck on my part, but a well-laid plan, seeded by a grandfather’s courage when he struck out into the unknown. I did not experience the segregated south or Jim Crow trains but I understood, as many of you here do, that my small accomplishments were part of a larger hope passed onto me, not always in words, but through a look, a sigh, and the embodiment of their hard work.   It was my/our job to get the goods, grasp the knowledge, the word, and the secret of the system and bring it home and share it with whoever needed to know.

Today with the ubiquity of the Internet, Facebook, Instagrams and Tweets the big moments now come to us in an instant, cause a momentary explosion of comment, only to be replaced by another startling world event. The good news is it is ever more clear that we are bound together and responsible to each other. As we share the human spectacle no transgression is hidden for long. The bad news is that the repetition of the images can cheapen even the most fantastic human event. We stand stunned in the face of impending environmental disaster; global and local terrorism; the images and sounds of the suffering confront us. As they happen, we are dwarfed in the shadow of their enormity.

What can we in our smallness do? We who glean the fields today gather those shafts of wheat left behind. In grief from so much loss, this work may be our salvation.   Our job, in these days of “endless blogs” and “lives gone viral”, may be again to find the sacred in the mundane act of everyday living.   As ordinary as it sounds when we send our children off to school each day—we re-enact a sacred ritual for which people have risked beatings and death to achieve. It is an impulse rooted deep in our human make up to embark on this eighteen year commitment –where one day builds the week, month and years that culminates in the moment when all the small steps add up to one well-prepared life. As each educator stands in front of the classroom he or she will struggle with the inadequacies of the resources, but daunted as that teacher is he/she finds a way to connect with the student who is somebody’s child and the future of us all.   When we resonate, as we must, during brief flashes of clarity, we grasp that each and every one of us matters, because without the work, hope, love and dedication of the many, that moment in 1963 would never have happened.   Who knows, if we will in our life times, have that kind of moment again? But I say, maybe this is the time not of the one, but of the many.

I am grateful to those of you who have raised your families when you might rather have been doing something else; those of you who helped a young person who was not your own child; given money and time for the betterment of your community even when you got little or no notice—you may not be thanked but you will do it regardless. I want to thank those of you who have gone into teaching when it was clear that it was no place to make a fortune, but it remains one of the most important professions for any community who knows what is truly at stake.   Our next big challenge as a community and nation will be to reclaim higher education as an affordable right for the many, not a luxury for the few. We have to take it back from those lending institutions that would bankrupt our families and children, mortgage their futures.

My first venture into college was at what was then called Seattle Community College—as an evening student, where I took my very first English class. My mother and her best friend Viola who was also my hairdresser, dropped me off on Summit Avenue Annex at 6pm and picked me up at 9pm. I don’t know what those two young ladies did when they left. I know they didn’t sit outside and wait for me for 3 hours–but I never asked. It never occurred to me that they wouldn’t be there.

Today I ask you to remember the aspiration, the small steps needed to arrive. It’s not okay to say that because we can’t do the monumental that our individual contributions don’t matter. Who are we to say that our “one” vote means nothing? Who are we to overlook the life of even one child lost in violence or despair? In these days when we are overwhelmed by the wave of the Michael Browns, Trayvon Martins or the child who kills himself or another, none of it is okay and I say that every small thing matters.

In this light, Dr. King’s speech is a love letter sent to a future that he would not see. And, it is a message, for all of humanity. In 2015 when the gravity of poverty yet exists— and societal injustice brings no relief from the violence we heap upon each other—we wonder if we have moved the needle of progress at all. When in doubt, take the harvest from your fruit trees to the food bank—volunteer at your local school whether you have children or not.

When my grandfather decided in the 1940s to move his family from rural Shreveport, Louisiana to Seattle, it was no small move. These former sharecroppers and cotton pickers were the sons and daughter of those who passed on a direct memory of slavery. They were the many un-graduated from any high school with no diplomas offering up hands in labor and arms in defense of the only country they knew.

Today let us remember the individual stories, the small kindnesses of he who opens the door, holds the train, shares the food, the knowledge, the kind word— In 2015, I am charged with remembering the gifts of all those who came before me. These individuals were part of the raw stuff of the dream to which Martin Luther King, Jr. would refer. As I stand in Mount Zion Baptist Church, I must speak of Reverend Samuel B. McKinney, who in 1961, met with Martin Luther King Jr. right here in Seattle. He, himself a 1949 graduate of Morehouse College, was exemplary to all in his parish of the value of education, the power of voice matched with reason. As the church was one of the pivotal symbols of unity in Seattle’s Central District, the core of the African American community and continues to be that for many. We were neighbors who held a tightly knit community together and the businesses that served them and us. In 2015 we lament many of the changes but we also take heart and are charged with naming the successes of those who have caught the dream and moved it forward. We still stand for uplifting the race, community and the country. My grandfather used to say “If you live long enough you gonna see some of everything.”

Many of us have lived long enough to remember Sam Smith, the first Black City Councilman; the election of Norman B. Rice as our the first Black Mayor of Seattle; Ron Sims first King County executive; Larry Gossett, County Council; Dr. Charles Mitchell a Seattle Colleges Chancellor; Judge Charles Z Smith and Charles Johnson and Richard Jones all exemplary leaders; and Dr. Ben Danielson at Odessa Brown; Charles Johnson, author, National Book award winner and MacArthur Genius; Octavia Butler, award-winning science fiction writer; and August Wilson, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright spring from our culture to live among us to tell their and our stories. And, yes there is Barack Obama, the first Black president of the United States of America.

I pray, let me never be so overwhelmed or habituated to the grand gesture that miracles such as these no longer impress me. I say we are here today to engage in the “mindfulness” that recognizes these are still events for which we should and can be grateful every day. There is a place for, and merit in being the second, even third or fourth–Mayor, City or County Council person, community leader and National Book Award winner, scientist and doctor. These achievements remind us that there was a time, not so long ago, before that first, when we never thought we would live to see the day. Our job now is not just to pass the dream on, but to take it out, brush off the tarnish of any personal disappointments and pass it on as we ourselves receive it, in all its fresh wonderment. Today let’s remember to re-appreciate and re-engage and be amazed. This may not be the moment for the one—but it just might be the time for the many.

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