On April 4th, 2018, Phillip Baber was asked to speak at the Community Unity & Memorial Breakfast commemorating the 50th anniversary of MLK’s death. It was hosted by The First Coast Leadership Foundation of Jacksonville. Phillip’s speech is transcribed below.
In January of this year, communities across the nation joyously celebrated the 89th birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Today, we solemnly commemorate the 50th anniversary of his tragic and untimely death.
On the birthdays of historically remarkable individuals, it is proper and fitting to lift-up and rejoice-over the great achievements of their lives. On the anniversaries of their assassinations, however, we would do well to pause… to mourn for all that has been lost… to lament the impoverishment caused by their absence. If not for that bullet, Dr. King might very well still be here with us today. Fighting against injustice… tearing down systems of oppression… captivating us again and again with his prophetic words.
Dr. King was a mere 39 years-old when he was struck down. He had so much left to give. That fact is especially heavy on my heart this morning—for I stand before all of you today at the age of 39 myself.
While I genuinely enjoy celebrating Dr. King’s birth every January, I have an even greater appreciation for the remembrance of his death every April. That’s because his assassination is a stark reminder of a fact that is all-too conveniently overlooked every MLK Weekend: Dr. King was a very dangerous man. You see, only very dangerous individuals are cut down in their prime by assassins. Dr. King was a palpable threat to the powers-that-be: those who directly benefitted from the perpetuation of racial and economic injustice.
Dr. King was assassinated because he was an agitator who made people uncomfortable. He led marches. He protested. He shut down freeways and bridges. He caused maximum disruption. He was a proponent of civil disobedience, which is the nice, fancy way of saying he purposely broke the law over and over again. He was arrested 30 times over the course of 10 years. And he encouraged other people to break the law as well. He forced open the eyes of White America, which had refused to look at the ugly truth of its own racism.
Dr. King’s aims and tactics were so divisive, he earned several powerful enemies—as he should have. Because, look—If you don’t have enemies, then it means you pose a threat to no one and to nothing. He was insulted by many in the black community. His family was bombed by white terrorists. Following his “I Have a Dream Speech,” the FBI declared Dr. King an enemy of the State and drafted a memo calling King “[quote] The most dangerous […] Negro leader in the country.”
Dr. King didn’t believe in the politics of moderation. He didn’t lose any sleep at night over the fact that his actions were polarizing the country. That was the point. He refused to allow people to stay on the sidelines or straddle a middle ground. His ministry was dedicated to forcing people to choose a side: The side of the oppressed, or the side of the oppressor. He was the ultimate divider.
And today, we are honoring this great divider at a breakfast dedicated to unity. Now at first blush, this would seem a bit contradictory. But sometimes the most profound truth appears as a paradox.
In his last speech, delivered the day before his death, Dr. King made an observation that is as true today as it was 50-years-and-1-day ago. He declared, “The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around.” But he also noted that, “Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up….”
Which then led him to ask: “[W]hat does all of this mean in this great period of history? It means that we’ve got to stay together. We’ve got to stay together and maintain unity…. [W]henever Pharaoh wanted to prolong… slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite formula for doing it…. He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh’s court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery. Now let us maintain unity.”
In Dr. King’s metaphor from the Hebrew Bible, we understand that Pharaoh represents a system of injustice and oppression. And Dr. King is calling for unity among all those—of whatever race—all those who share more in common with each other than they do with Pharaoh and his court. In other words, in this speech, Dr. King is issuing a call for solidarity. If the diverse masses can come together in a spirit of unity, then Pharaoh—those systems of injustice—will be overthrown. And then we shall all be free.
The Spirit of Pharaoh rests upon Jacksonville. We are a city of inequalities.
That’s why black residents here are more likely to be cited by JSO for jaywalking than white folks. That’s why nearly 60% of impoverished children in Duval County are black, even though black folks make up only 30% of the total population. That’s why black neighborhoods are utterly ignored by the city of Jacksonville.
Like many others in this nation, we are a city built-on and sustained-by the sin of racism. And there will be no unity, there can be no justice, until we confess this sin and atone for it.
But… what would the city of Jacksonville look like if we did that? If we did that and actually achieved the unity described by Dr. King in his final speech?
Well… we wouldn’t be worried about what school our kids were going to, because all our schools would be equally funded, filled with highly qualified teachers. People all over the city would often forget to lock their doors at night, because every neighborhood would be safe. We wouldn’t have violent crime in poor neighborhoods because… we wouldn’t have poor neighborhoods anymore. And instead of expanding our prisons and jails, we’d have to start closing them down because we didn’t have enough criminals to populate them.
Since Dr. King’s death, we as a nation have been so beaten down by despair and artificially lowered expectations, we can barely even imagine a reality like the one I just described. Those who profit from injustice have strategically infused us with a spirit of cynicism that keeps us from dreaming. But Dr. King calls us to dream with him. It was on the strength of his inexorable hope that we as a nation took our greatest strides towards justice. And it is only a similar hope that can take us, as a city, to similar heights. We must believe in the dream again.