‘Living a Life That Matters’
Speech delivered by Southwestern graduate and trustee Larry Haynes at the MLK Day Community Dinner, Jan. 20, 2014
I was thirteen years old, shy, an introvert – living with my grandmother in a little house on a dirt road outside of Bellmead, TX. We were regular folks, not educated, a poor family, just trying to make ends meet, from day to day.
We rarely saw Colored people on TV in those days, and when we did, it was quite an event. If one saw a Colored person on TV, he’d normally run down the road from house to house, yelling to our neighbors “there’s a Colored person on TV, there’s a Colored person on TV!!”
So you can imagine, what we Colored folks experienced on that day in August 1963 – The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It was the 100 year anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order signed by Abraham Lincoln that freed most slaves.
More than 250,000 people gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial, perhaps 75% of them were Negroes ( or Colored people, as we called ourselves in those days), supported by others who were white and brown and came from all regions of America to rally for human rights.
My grandmother and I were anxious, even fearful, yet proud to see so many Colored people with the courage to go to Washington D.C. for this march. Of course, then to hear Rev MLK speak to us with such eloquence, was uplifting as it stirred our souls. His pacing, the rise and fall of voice was mesmerizing as he spoke of his dream and the unfairness of the dehumanizing system of legal discrimination which existed in the South – Jim Crow Laws, which relegated black Americans to the status of second class citizens.
Most days, by virtue of our low level jobs, we were reminded that we were held in low esteem in America, viewed as not very smart, with no desire to improve our condition, at the very bottom of the social and economic ladder.
For some Black Americans, this fueled their passion for change, while for others, it was a heavy burden, which led some to low self-esteem and self-doubt, often fearful for their lives. This was especially true in the South, where Black folks were often terrorized, brutalized, demeaned and treated with great disrespect, with little or no help from local law enforcement. It was not unusual, especially in years past, for this treatment to end in death by beating or by lynching.
But through Dr King’s leadership and the efforts of many other courageous Americans, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were passed which leveled the playing field in so many ways, as we now we could participate in democracy like other Americans and the federal government committed itself to insuring our legal rights.
These new laws were monumental – but to be clear, these achievement were not the work of one man. They were the work of many. Dr. King was the inspiration, the public face, the person who could move many to action, but they were many others black, white and brown Americans, young and old, Northerners and Southerners, students from the across the country who gave their hearts and soul and put themselves at great risk, even death in some cases, in the pursuit of equality, freedom, justice and service to humanity.
None were more important than President Kennedy, who championed the Civil Rights Act before his assassination, and especially President Lyndon Johnson, who against fierce opposition in the South, used his experience in legislative politics and the bully pulpit to drive these laws across the finish line. This was a herculean task, considering that the Southern Bloc of Senators had filibustered the bill in the Senate for 54 days, some Southerners vowing to bitterly resist any measure that would bring about social equality and intermingling of the races.
That pivotal day in August 1963 is rightfully lauded, but little understood by most. We seem to mostly remember King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, forgetting the many other reasons that the March was organized. But before Dr. King laid out his famed, optimistic vision of a color-blind future, he and 10 other speakers painted a dark picture of America, outlining many areas in need of redress - likening the American promise of justice and equal treatment to all, as a bounced check.
We forget that it was a billed as a march for “Jobs and Freedom.” Yes, unemployment was 5.4 percent, but the unemployment rate for black Americans was more than double that of Whites. But the March organizers knew that minority and American advancement depended on economic growth—not just nondiscrimination—and that’s why they wanted both.
And while we’re all familiar with the “I Have a Dream” speech and its power to stir the emotions, it’s but one of thousands of speeches and sermons by Dr. King, who wrote and spoke on issues of social justice, poverty, and the need for togetherness and brotherhood to solve these problems in society.
In perhaps one of his most far-reaching speeches, Dr. King, speaking of “Chaos or Community, introduced the concept of the “The World House,” and called us to do four things: 1) transcend tribe, race, class, nation, and religion to embrace the vision of a World House; 2) eradicate at home and globally the Triple Evils of racism, poverty, and militarism; 3) curb excessive materialism and shift from a “thing”-oriented society to a “people”-oriented society; and 4) resist social injustice and resolve conflicts in the spirit of love embodied in the philosophy and methods of nonviolence.
King began with a story from a plot conceived by a famous novelist of “A widely separated family which inherits a house in which they have to live together.” He called it the great new problem of mankind. He said that we have inherited a large house, a great “world house” in which we have to live together—black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Hindu—a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest, who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace.” The large house in which we live demands that we transform the world-wide neighborhood into a world-wide brotherhood. So eloquently, he stated that together, we must learn to live as brothers or we will be forced to perish as fools.
In Dr. King’s view, nonviolence was a powerful and just weapon. Indeed, a weapon unique in history, which cut without wounding and ennobled the man who wielded it, by appealing to the conscience of the decent majority who through blindness, fear, pride, and irrationality have allowed their consciences to sleep. Many in the black community doubted the effectiveness of nonviolence, and, in fact, some like the Black Panther party, openly advocated for violence. But Dr. King was convinced that nonviolence was the most practically sound and morally sound way to grapple with the problem of racial injustice.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr believed strongly that all people are created equal - not just because it was written in the Declaration of Independence, but more so because it is written in Scripture – Acts17:26: “God has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth”. And all men being equal, he found more direction in 1 John 4:21 which reads and “this commandment we have from Him: that he who love God, must love his neighbor also”.
And so, it was quite natural for Dr King to preach that human service, the taking care of one another, was the highest calling. The poor are not the objects of our affections but the fellow travelers just like us and they have much to give, their thoughts, their ideas. In the final analysis, the rich must not ignore the poor because both rich and poor are tied in a single garment of destiny. All life is interrelated, and all men are interdependent. The agony of the poor diminishes the rich, and the salvation of the poor enlarges the rich. We are inevitably our brothers’ keeper.
In other words, the contract between people, young and old, across generations, to be decent to one another is the thread by which we must live. And, not just us, we must demand of our politicians and governments the same standards they ask of us. So this national holiday, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, each of us is asked to commit ourselves to stand up for decency and justice and nonviolence in our time, in our community, in our family, and in our world.
But looking back on Dr. King’s speech at this moment in history, we see that we are still fighting some battles that predate the March on Washington; we are engaged in new battles that Dr. King was unlikely to have anticipated, and we find ourselves re-fighting some old civil rights battles, especially in the area of voting rights and income equality.
Dr King would be devastated to learn that America’s young adults are both the most murdered and most incarcerated people on the planet. Perhaps more than anything, he would be outraged that the Supreme Court made the intentional decision to weaken the Voting Rights Act. Even The Dallas Morning News, a beacon of conservatism, spoke of a new study that confirms that tougher voter ID laws continue to crop up in Southern states where minority and lower-income voter turnout has increased. And that these tougher laws are part of a well-defined strategy aimed at keeping minority and low-income voters away from the polls, despite the fact that widespread voter impersonation is virtually non-existent.
With respect to Income inequality, the March organizers’ specifically asked that Congress hike the minimum wage to at least $2.00, or $15.27 in today’s dollars. Yet, today, the Federal minimum is $7.25, a loss of nearly 50% in purchasing power since 1963.
Some of you may be surprised to hear that the average income for the lowest 25% of American families was lower in 2012 than it was in 1968. Never mind that the incomes of the top 1% rose close to 90%over the past 20 years while those of everyone else rose less than 20%, or that 95% of the income gains from 2009-12 went to the top 1%.
It’s no wonder that so many minority and white low income workers can barely make ends meet, even when both spouses and partners work. Sadly, more Americans live in poverty today than during Dr. King’s lifetime. Forty-seven million Americans currently fall below the poverty line.
Of course, our country remains one of the richest in the world, yet, despite its riches, in many areas, the United States looks surprisingly and depressingly substandard.
It’s been reported that infant and maternal mortality are the highest among advanced nations, as is the mortality rate for children under the age of 20, and life expectancy among Black Americans — at birth and at age 60 — is among the lowest
Teenage pregnancy rates are also higher than in other rich nations, and the United States has the highest rate of children living with a single parent among the industrialized nations, with only Turkey, Mexico and Poland having more children living in poor homes.
So, while much has accomplished in the last 50 years, there clearly is much work to do.
But the question that must be answered is - WHO will do it?
Many of our Elected Representatives in government are good people, with noble intentions, but for reasons difficult to comprehend, some seem more interested in raising campaign war chests to get re-elected that tackling these structural issues with seriousness and compassion.
No doubt, leadership must come from individuals of all generations, including seniors, like myself, and others here tonight. Especially we look to young adults, the students her at Southwestern University and others, who will help determine the future of our country in years to come.
In my own experience here at Southwestern, I learned the power of a liberal arts education to enable me to develop my whole self, to learn how to learn, to appreciate different perspectives, to understand broadly and deeply the issues that impact the human condition. I learned that mastery of a broad range of intellectual and cultural thinking and content lends perspective to any decision-making. Southwestern cultivated in me an avid curiosity and the willingness to question broadly and deeply and to listen with caring, debate cogently, and judge fairly; as well as an awareness that further enabled me to draw clear and clean ethical lines, even in the face of adversity.
To understand how this is possible, you need only look to
Southwestern University’s Core Purpose so beautifully states – of fostering a liberal arts community whose values and actions encourage contributions toward the well-being of humanity;
Or consider, Southwestern ‘s Core Values:
- Cultivating academic excellence.
- Promoting lifelong learning and a passion for intellectual and personal growth.
- Fostering diverse perspectives.
- Being true to oneself and others.
- Respecting the worth and dignity of persons.
And of course, the core value that would likely have touched Dr. King’s heart most warmly,
- Encouraging activism in the pursuit of justice and the common good.
Now, Dr King, like all others, did not live a perfect life. He was fallible, and endured many, well-chronicled disappointments in his personal and public life, but was persistent in pushing pass them. After all, he was only a man. But he was a man of great courage, with a passion for service and a deep faith and commitment to the well-being of others. A man who believed in and lived by the Golden rule – that each of us is called to love our neighbors, as ourselves.
Dr. King lived a life that mattered. He made a difference.
What does it take for you and for me to live a life that matters?
Ask a hundred people what a great life looks like and you’ll probably get a hundred different answers.
Here are thoughts from an unknown author whose poem, in part, I paraphrase:
What will matter will be not what I got, but what I gave.
What will matter will not be my success, but my significance.
What matters is not what I learned, but what I taught.
What matters is that I lived with integrity, compassion, and generosity to enrich, empower, and encourage others.
What will matter is not your memories, but the memories that live in those who loved you.
What will matter is how long you will be remembered, by whom and for what.
Living a life that matters doesn’t happen by accident, it’s not a matter of circumstances; it is a matter of choice.
Do you choose to live a life that matters?
Are you a difference maker in the lives of others?
Of course, each of us must answer this question for ourselves.
It is a paradox and profoundly true that the most certain way for people to bring hope, help, meaning and joy to their own lives is by reaching out and bringing hope , help, meaning and joy to the lives of others. Given that you joined us at this dinner tonight, no doubt many of you have already experienced this beautiful phenomenon for yourselves.
I pray the Lord’s grace on all of us, as we seek creative solutions to the social and economic challenges of today, and move closer to Dr. King’s vision of a color blind world of brotherhood, peace, freedom, justice, love and service to humanity.
And at the end of our personal journeys, we can look back on our lives and see lives of significance, and not regret – knowing in our hearts that we left the world better than we found it, knowing that we made a difference in the lives of others - got something wonderful out of it and gave something wonderful back.
Thank you for your kind attention to my remarks this evening.
I’m honored to have been your speaker on this special day.