So often on the day designated to honor the life and legacy of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we focus on our needs--the things that make us feel good. We look to his speeches for hope, to be inspired, to seek out motivational quotations for social media. But this use of Dr. King’s legacy and words to comfort and inspire is, in my personal opinion, a bastardization of his legacy--of the very real complex person he was and the radical vision he had for us. A vision of justice and accountability that could only result in radical change. Dr. King was a radical for racial justice, economic justice, democratic socialism, and demilitarization. I would even purport that, as a white person, my white community has shifted the legacy of a hero of civil and human rights to serve our purpose rather than the purpose of justice. And it was ultimately liberty and justice that was the goal of the work of Dr. King.
These then must be our goal. Do we need hope? Absolutely. But we also need truth. Because without truth, hope is an empty exercise of individualism that serves no purpose other than self. The goal of our hope must be as radical as the pursuit of truth and justice. Hope without truth is an exercise in willing blindness and wishful thinking. It is only when we first seek out truth, the truths of the many, that we might find those strands of belief that perpetuate injustice and those real, lived experiences that come with immense discomfort for some but are the daily life of others. Our comfort can never come at the cost of another’s access to joy, purpose, and even life. To ignore these truths in pursuit of hope is to practice an extreme optimism that maintains our comfort rather than moving us towards a more just world. Hope devoid of truth perpetuates oppression. It is the thief of justice and liberty.
This year, we have seen COVID-19 take the lives of people while destroying the lives of many others. Many are living with the after-effects. Some we do not even understand yet. But in the midst of this, another contagion continued to sweep our nation and world--the pandemic of racism. A pandemic of white supremacy. A pandemic that has been devastating lives and stripping our humanity for 100s of years. A pandemic inscribed in our legal documents and processes, our belief systems, or internalized hierarchy of worth. As Ibram X. Kendi says, a cancer. One that is not new to us. And like any illness, it does not go away because we ignore it. Our Black, Brown, and Indigenous family has been in pain. Not only today. Not only this year. But for centuries. As a white person, I own my complicity in that. And today, on this day I celebrate the resilience, the power, and the too-often unacknowledged joy and brilliance of Black and Brown people in the United States and this world.
You are beautiful. You are powerful. Just like every other person in this room, you deserve to be celebrated. Dr. King fought for your greatness. He demanded it be seen and treated as such. And, today, I want all of us to hear that. We should not balk to celebrate any one of us. And there are days, like the release of honor role or during championship game days, when we intentionally lift specific people up. Today we lift up those Black, Brown, and indigenous members of our community. Your lives matter. We see you. You are loved. You are power. And, on behalf of Holderness School, I commit not only to hope for our collective future but to commit to radical action. An action buoyed by hope that is grounded in truths and justice and measured with accountability.
So, today, as we seek to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.-- a Black man who was murdered for trying to make the world a more just and free place. I ask us to do two things. First. Listen to his words. Find those that hold a mirror up to who you are and where you are in this world and work. And two--find inspiration not because of the comfort of his words but rather because of the discomfort.
Seek out those ways in which you are connected to a community and the lives of others. Our purpose on this earth is not to win games or make straight As. Those fade. They do not help support partners, raise children, or say goodbye to loved ones. They are not what others will remember about you. And as pursuits of individualism, they do not disrupt injustice. Our purpose is deeper. It is that thing that may not even be of service to ourselves. It is choosing not to seek out that which confirms our existing beliefs but rather those things which we don’t understand. What is your purpose? How will you go forth into this world with a desire for justice in your heart? What do you need to learn? What will you do? Who are you willing to listen to?
If we are to confront what Dr. King actually called us to be, we cannot be passive supporters of justice. We must be active partners towards radical change. We must be willing to get in good trouble (Thank you, John Lewis, may you rest in excellence). You will hear excerpts of some of Dr. King’s legacy today. I want to know what your legacy will be. And if it doesn’t hold up to Dr. King’s, where can you make the change? I can only hope that Dr. King’s dream and his words today can serve to move us forward from the nightmare that so many of us find ourselves in today. That we are willing to listen to his message as it was meant--a radical shift to the fabric of who we are in order that all might reach those unrealized aspirations of freedom, liberty, and justice for all.
In closing, I want to end with one of Dr. King’s quotations, “Large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.” I think. I hope. That is changing. When I look out at all your faces, I see hope. I see goodness. I wonder how you will commit to justice, liberty, and freedom--for all, not just your own comfort. And as we head into our advisory groups right now, I encourage you to think about the real legacy of Dr. King. A legacy that is powerful in its commitment to justice and freedom. A legacy that desperately needs your imagination, honesty, and compassion for our future if it is to be the radical shift that we need. I will end by repeating the same words that Yansel just read. And I want you to take note of who Dr. King lays his hope on---listen for the word “student”
“And I'm happy to say that I see them every day in the student generation who cherish democratic principles and justice above principle, and who will stick with the cause of justice and the cause of Civil Rights and the cause of peace throughout the days ahead. And so I refuse to despair. I think we're gonna achieve our freedom because however much America strays away from the ideals of justice, the goal of America is freedom.”
Holderness has had an amazing fall and we have so much to be thankful for – the continued good health of this community, the dedication of the Davis Center, just being able to return to a school year that feels like normal and so much more.
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