In 2008, I met the Reverend Billy Kyles on an escalator in a Denver hotel during the Democratic National Convention. I was one of the Maine Delegates that nominated then Senator Barack Obama to represent our party as its presidential candidate. Although I could not place whether I knew this distinguished gentleman or why he looked familiar, I decided to introduce myself.
Reverend Kyles began his career during an era of strict racial segregation. Over the decades he has spent ministering to congregations in Memphis, Tennessee, he has accomplished much. However, Kyles may be most remembered for the hour he spent at the Lorraine Motel with Reverends Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King Jr. It was King's last hour on this earth and Kyles was kind enough to tell me about it.
He told me why he was pointing in the famous photograph taken of the motel balcony in the minutes after the fatal shot. The first police officer on the scene had shouted a question about where the shot had come from. Kyles also impressed upon me that Dr. King was, among other things, a regular person like you and me. For instance, King had joked with Kyles about whether he could afford furniture or food after he had purchased his family's first home.
Dr. King famously said "the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice." On the 40th anniversary of King's death, then Senator Barack Obama quoted those words and then aptly added, "but it does not bend on its own." He was right, but I would also add that we do not achieve justice, or peace, or prosperity, simply by electing one person to high office. Each citizen has the obligation to place our own hands on the arc of the moral universe and push. We all have our gifts. Few of us will ever reach the heights of eloquence of Dr. King but when all is said, he was just another person who dedicated himself to making a better life. We each can do our part.
Today, as we remember and celebrate the life of Dr. King, we must also remember that although our nation was founded on the ideals of freedom, liberty, and equality, it was also understood by the founders that these ideals each needed to be perfected by future generations. In other words, each generation of Americans has the obligation to build a better nation not only for themselves and their neighbors, but for posterity. This generation faces some challenges that seem almost too formidable to mention.
America, today, has an overburdened safety net as a result of an uncertain economy and the growing inequalities of income and wealth. Too rampant greed and fraud in our financial sector led by Wall Street make diminishes our respect for those we call the shakers and movers. Governing institutions designed to work for people are too often found to be dominated by narrow vested interests including impersonal multinational corporations. Unsustainable demands on our natural resources raise questions about what heritage we will leave to the next generation.
Addressing all these challenges requires dedication and work. Sometimes it also requires risk. We must be willing to stand up to those whose actions oppress others. We must not shy away from standing up to even the most powerful interests, especially when those interests threaten our ideals of equality, justice, and peace. As it turns out, these are always times that try our souls and test our mettle as a nation.
Dr. King wisely counseled us to understand and commit ourselves to nonviolence precisely because he understood that "it is the most potent weapon available." From a Birmingham jail, he wrote that a hopeful campaign for change includes: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; and, if needed, nonviolent direct action.
Beyond the "I have a dream speech" it is King's strategic thinking that we should never forget. In addition to declaring his dream for a better world he also spoke of times when people would use "our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community." In his words: "Nonviolent direct action seeks... to foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to so dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored."
I am glad that America today can honor a man who understood so deeply what may be required from us to make social change. We have seen the arc of history bend toward justice, but it did not occur in one day or in the one remarkable lifetime of Dr. King. It has, and always will, require our initiative and our efforts to keep bending the arc in the right direction.
These are lessons which deserve particular attention to on this day. Reverend Kyles took time to remind me what can be accomplished when dedicated and concerned individuals are willing to stand together for a greater cause. I hope we all take a moment today to reflect on what we have achieved as a nation, and more importantly, the work which still lies ahead of us.