This reminded me of an experience I had in 2000 during my first year in one of my township manager positions, I was asked to speak at the annual Martin Luther King Day community breakfast. When I was shown the peace, love and brotherhood feel-good bromides that the previous presenter had used, I wrote my own piece. Needless to say, in subsequent breakfasts, this item was removed from the agenda in the name of shortening the program. I was never asked to speak again.
THERE IS A REASON
There is a reason why we are here today. There is a reason why we remember Martin Luther King Jr. today as a great and good man.
The reason for this occasion may be found in three pictures which I saw this past week.
Some of you may have seen the first image on the front page of the New York Times, a picture of 15 Chinese immigrants huddled together in the rain on the docks of Seattle, survivors of a trip across the ocean in a metal cargo container. These people were so desperate to get to America, the golden land of opportunity, that they endured over two weeks entombed in a dark box, with no food for days, no toilet facilities, and the bodies of three dead companions. Probably, only to be sent back.
But we are not here today to talk about the dream of America as the land of opportunity. We are not here to celebrate the fact that Franklin Township has a new mayor who comes from India. Even though I do celebrate that fact. And I do think that our salvation as a nation will come from our openness to all peoples and all cultures.
We are here today because Martin Luther King’s ancestors did not make the trip across the ocean willingly. Dr. King’s ancestors were kidnapped, chained, and thrown into ships in conditions even more horrific than those endured by the Chinese immigrants who landed in Seattle last week. We are here because the survivors of that ocean passage were then held in slavery for generations. We are here because the stain of the crime of slavery on our nation has not been removed even by a civil war.
The endurance of that stain, that wound of slavery and racism, the continuation of that affliction is captured in the second image I would like to note. That is the picture of Lige Daniels that was published in last Thursday’s New York Times. It is the picture of Lige Daniels being lynched in Center, Texas on August 3, 1920. It is the picture of the white men and boys standing around Mr. Daniels’ body, smiling into the camera.
The reason why we are here today is that between 1882 and 1968, the year of Dr. King’s death, over four thousand seven hundred African-Americans were killed by lynch mobs in this country. The reason why we are here today is that in 1998, James Byrd Jr. was dragged to his death in this country, just because he was black.
The article accompanying the picture of Lige Daniels describes another picture in a collection of photographs currently on display at the Roth Horowitz gallery in Manhattan. I quote from the article:
One exhibit at Roth Horowitz provides a glimmer of what these photographs might mean for the future. It is a photograph of Frank Embree, standing on the back of a buggy, naked and chained, shortly before his death in Fayette, Mo., on July 22, 1899. He has been severely whipped and the camera records the deep lacerations up and down his body. But it also records his insuperable dignity and his eyes, which look down at the camera and directly into the lens, oblivious of the leering white men who crowd into the picture.
[The exhibit annotator] writes that Embree’s eyes are dead, but it seems equally arguable that they know death is coming. Their narrow, exclusive focus gives them a flicker of life. Embree looks into the camera as if into the future, as if he knows that the camera will ultimately betray the men around him and let the world know his fate.
The third picture that explains why we are here today is the cover of last week’s New Yorker magazine. It shows a well-dressed Dr. King stepping off the curb on the streets of New York trying to hail a cab. We are looking at Dr. King through the windshield of the cab. In the upper corner of the picture, we see the frightened eyes of the white taxi-driver reflected in the rear-view mirror.
That New Yorker cover requires no further comment as to why we need to be here today.
I apologize if the images I have called before you this morning are unsettling. But we are here on serious business. I do think that Dr. King would take it as a tribute to his own memory if we were to say that we are here today for Frank Embree and James Byrd Jr. We are here today because the Franklin Martin Luther King Scholarship Fund is one way for us to say and to make sure: Never Again!
If my speech seems a imprudently blunt, I would note the following. In my first year as manager, I had hired an African-American as assistant manager and an African immigrant as finance officer. Afterward a township council member came to see me with a message from the then mayor (not the one mentioned in my speech), “Don’t do any more of ‘that stuff.'”