Reflections on Dr. King
On Sunday, January 8, I delivered these remarks in the oldest African American church in Port Huron, at a service to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I believe Dr. King's message of hope and resilience still resonates today, and can help us foster constructive dialogue and reduce division.
Agustin V. Arbulu, Director
Michigan Department of Civil Rights
Sunday, January 8, 2017
Historic Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church
Port Huron, Michigan
We are living in trying times.
In recent months, we have watched a wave of hate and bias spread across the nation – a wave that I suspect will continue to ebb and flow for some time to come.
We have also heard the voices of good people speaking out against the forces of hate, reasserting our basic right to freedom from persecution based on the color of our skin, the nation we were born in or the religion we practice.
With all that we are experiencing today, it can be easy to become discouraged, to lose faith in the hopeful and powerful message of Dr. King.
And that is where I want to begin, with some of the most important and honest words Dr. King ever spoke. If you recall nothing else of what I say here today, I trust you will remember these words:
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
Keep these words in mind. I will return to them shortly.
I want to take a moment to consider another message contained in a little-known sermon Dr. King delivered right here in Michigan, at Detroit’s Second Baptist Church in February of 1954.
On that Sunday, King was only 25 years old, a graduate student at Boston University, still finding his footing as a minister and an orator. It was in that church in Detroit that he would preview some of the most important themes he would return to in the decade and a half ahead, until he met his death on a Memphis motel balcony on April 4, 1968.
In his sermon, he redirects the congregation from a focus on man’s achievements and the feats of science – important though he believed they were – to the teachings and moral foundation which informed his civil rights activism.
“The trouble isn't so much that our scientific genius lags behind, but our moral genius lags behind. The real problem is that through our scientific genius we've made of the world a neighborhood, but through our moral and spiritual genius we've failed to make of it a brotherhood."
He shared the story of a trip he made from New York to Boston with a stop in Connecticut to visit friends. When he left Connecticut and resumed his journey, he traveled many miles past the turn to Boston in the wrong direction, requiring him to go back in order to find the right way forward.
And that, he asserted, was what the nation must do at that moment.
“We’ve got to go back and rediscover some mighty precious values that we’ve left behind.”
I believe the message of that little-known sermon delivered nearly 63 years ago in Detroit still resonates today.
Too many among us have lost sight of the foundational truths of equality, opportunity and justice that Dr. King and so many others fought for more than a half century ago.
Yes, we are witness to a resurgence of bias and hate the likes of which we have not seen in many years. But in his sermon, Dr. King reminds us,
“This universe hinges on moral foundations. There is something in this universe that justifies saying, 'No lie can live forever.' There is something in this universe that justifies saying, 'Truth, crushed to earth, will rise again.'"
We also must turn back to the great truths given voice by Dr. King and others to find our footing and move this nation forward.
How fortunate we are that at critical times in our nation’s history, women and men of the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks, Malcolm X and Medgar Evers, Fannie Lou Hamer and John Lewis, faced down the dangers of a society that did not value them equally, and in so doing, bent the arc of the moral universe toward justice.
There are many more good people, some well-known and others lost to history, whose acts and words brought us closer to the day when racial, ethnic and religious discrimination and disparity are part of our history and no longer our daily reality.
The progress in our lifetimes is breathtaking, but much remains to be done.
The civil rights battles the Michigan Department of Civil Rights is engaged in today are broad and deep, and find us fighting for equal opportunity and against discrimination on behalf of people with disabilities, women, people of all faiths or of no religious faith, the LGBTQ community and people of color.
We work every day to try to stop discrimination and bias before it happens, through our work with leaders and citizens all over the state.
We work to build bridges between communities and law enforcement, so that the tragedies we’ve seen in other states don’t happen here, or if they do, they don’t result in violence and harm to our people and the cities in which they live and work.
We champion the rights of migrant farmworkers to safe housing, health care, and fair pay as they do the work that has made Michigan one of the top agricultural economies in the nation.
We advocate for individuals with disabilities, working to advance their right to access, and to educate the wider world about their rights under federal and state law.
We educate on fair housing and enforce housing laws, to make sure no one is denied access to a home on the basis of the color of their skin, their disability, their nationality, their religion, their age, height, weight, marital or familial status.
And when these and other civil rights laws are broken, the Michigan Department of Civil Rights is charged with investigating complaints of discrimination. It is a mission we take very seriously.
We can’t know where the next bend in the road ahead will take us, but I can tell you - and I know this as well as I know my own name - we are all stewards as well as contributors on the next leg of the long journey toward justice.
One of the pitfalls of looking back at history from the distance of a half century is a tendency to cloak our storied civil rights leaders in greatness.
Make no mistake: I believe they were among the greatest heroes this country has ever produced. But – and this is critical to remember – the civil rights movement was made up of hundreds and thousands of people just like you and me, ordinary people who dared to try extraordinary things and speak truths that their fellow citizens did not want to hear.
We must be their inheritors, carrying their courage forward into the work that remains to be done.
Recall the words of Dr. King that I recited a few minutes ago:
"The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice."
I believe the most important word in that sentence is “long.”
The march toward justice has proven over the centuries to be an agonizing journey of inches - two steps forward and one step back – punctuated by sudden leaps of progress that seem to come out of the blue, but which in reality are the result of long years of pressure building to a point where the ground under our feet can no longer hold.
You may not feel the movement beneath you, but hold strong.
Look out always from your moral center, the home of all you know to be true and universal, and keep pushing forward.
Look back to the truths taught us by Dr. King and all the others who dared speak up and speak out when it mattered most.
Do not retreat, never retreat. Speak up when there is injustice.
The nation is counting on us to keep faith with Dr. King and everyone who walked with him on the uncompromising path of truth in the face of lies, of justice in a world of discrimination.
Together, we can take this nation a few more miles down that road.