MLK BIRTHDAY SPEECH
Delivered by Athena Cage
to Great Onyx Job Corps
on Dr. King’s Birthday
But I want to get something straight from the start. I’m an entertainer, not a public speaker. So if you came this evening expecting a great oratorical experience, boy are you guys in for a surprise. So don’t trip when i look at my notes a lot. This will be a warm & friendly conversation, not a speech.
Is that okay with you guys? Good.
That’s because one of my managers happens to be one of the architects of a March on Washington that resulted in this holiday. He shared with me, and I’m going to share with you, some inside, little known facts about this holiday.
By a show of hands, how many of you know that a music superstar is very much responsible for this holiday? By a show of hands how many of you know who it is?
On April 8, 1968, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich, submitted the first legislation proposing King's birthday as a national holiday, just four days after Dr. King was assassinated.
On Jan. 15, 1969: 1,200 automotive-plant workers in North Tarrytown, N.Y. stayed home from work to observe King's birthday. Sixty were suspended and others threatened with disciplinary action.
On March 25, 1970: Rep. Conyers and Rep. Shirley Chisholm, D-N.Y. announced hearings to study the holiday issue after petitions carrying 6 million signatures were submitted to Congress, believed to be the biggest petition drive in American history.
On April 10, 1970: California passed legislation maKing King's birthday a school holiday, the first state in the Nation to do so.
On July 15, 1970: the Seattle School Board designates King's birthday a school holiday starting in 1971 and state Rep. George Fleming began hearings to make the date a legal state holiday.
In January, 1981: In two incidents, six workers are fired from Seattle's Todd Shipyards after distributing leaflets to support the holiday.
In 1983 a big march took place to mark the 20th anniversary of King's dramatic “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C.
Then on August 2, 1983, the United States House of Representatives on a bi-partisan basis approved legislation 338-90, maKing the third Monday in January beginning in 1986 a National Legal Holiday in honor of Dr. King’s birthday.
Two months later, on October 19, 1983: the United States Senate, on a bi-partisan basis and in defiance of Sen. Jesse Helms, approved the Bill 78-22.
And finally, on November 2, 1983 President Ronald Reagan signed the bill into law.
It made Dr. King only the second American to have a national holiday on his birthday, George Washington being the other.
So there you have it. The official version of the King Holiday and what led up to it. But there is a significant piece of history missing from the official version – and it shouldn’t be: the invaluable contribution and immeasurable efforts of Mr. Stevie Wonder.
By a show of hands, how many of you know what he wrote?
Stevie began his music career in what city? The motor city, Detroit Michigan. Who represents Detroit, Michigan? Congressman John Conyers who introduced the King Bill for 15 straight years.
So with “Happy Birthday” written and popular, Stevie and Conyer’s teamed to lead a March on Washington to bring national and international attention to the fact that the holiday was bogged in Congress.
It was a proud moment for them, for all who had fought for so many years, and for America.
As Dr. Joseph Lowery, then head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference or SCLC, said at the time "As is usually the case with great figures, particularly controversial ones who are fighting for a philosophy condemned by many, Dr. King was well ahead of his time.”
So there! Now you have some insight on just what it took to get the King Holiday, but what about the Man? Who and what is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.? What prompted a Nation to name a holiday in his honor?
From 1935 to 1944, he attended Howard Elementary School and Booker T. Washington High School, skipping the 9th and 12the grades before being accepted at and attending Morehouse College in 1944. And get this: he was only 15 years old.
In 1953, he married Coretta Scott and in 1954 became pastor of Dexter Avenue Church in Montgomery, Alabama.
1955 was a busy year for Dr. King. he received his Doctorate Degree in Systemic Theology from Boston University; his first child Yolanda Denise was born; and a 42 year old seamstress named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man, catapulting Dr. King to center stage by leading the famous Montgomery bus boycott.
But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.
… I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal." I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood … I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.
Every time I read this speech, every time I hear this speech, my soul is stirred and I realize what a Patriot, what a moral and spiritual leader this Nation lost and misses deeply.
Moving on, in 1964, Dr. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
… Well, about four days later, they allowed me … to read some of the mail that came in, from all over the states, and the world… I read a few, but one of them I will never forget… from a little girl, a young girl who was a student at the White Plains High School … It said simply, "Dear Dr. King: I am a ninth-grade student at the White Plains High School." "While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I am a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune, and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I'm simply writing you to say that I'm so happy that you didn't sneeze."
And I want to say tonight … I am happy that I didn't sneeze. Because if I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been around here in 1960, when students all over the South started sitting-in at lunch counters. … If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been here in 1963, when the black people of Birmingham, Alabama, aroused the conscience of this nation ... If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have had a chance … to tell America about a dream that I had had. I'm so happy that I didn't sneeze.
I left Atlanta this morning … and the pilot said “We are sorry for the delay, but we have Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the plane and we had to check out everything carefully … we’ve had the plane guarded all night…
Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the Mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you.
But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the Promised Land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
I want each of you to believe in yourself. Work hard. Study Hard. Stay the course. Get your diploma, earn your GED. It will make a significant difference in your lives.
Now, everybody stand up. That’s right stand up. Look at the person standing on both sides of you. Shake their hands. Go ahead, shake their hands.
Guess what? You just shook the hand of a painter; a computer or business technician; a welder; a carpenter; a medical supporter; a landscaper; or a person in facility maintenance. And Job Corps is making it possible.
Good luck! Stay true! And God Bless each and every one of you. Good Night.
I don't ever want you to forget that there are millions of God's children who will not and cannot get a good education, and I don't want you feeling that you are better than they are. For you will never be what you ought to be until they are what they ought to be.'
And I say to each of you students here at Job Corps, that America will never be what it ought to be until you are what you want to be.
I leave you with what Dr. King said to his kids:
But you must care about yourself.
After you get your diploma or GED, take the college courses offered here. I attended Western Kentucky University and it cares about you. The people here at Job Corps care about you.
Like many of you, I come from humble beginnings; I was raised in the projects. I was told I couldn’t make it. Education is a waste of time. Forget about college – you’ll never get in. But I studied hard, worked hard and believed in myself.
In so doing, I submit to you that you will enrich your life and the lives of those all around you; you will be taking up where Dr. King left off by doing your part. You now must make this Nation fulfill its promise.
But no matter what you do after tonight, make a promise to yourself to read about Dr. King’s teachings, his philosophy and his legacy. Make it your business to learn more about this remarkable man who made the ultimate sacrifice to improve our Nation and the quality of our lives.
And so I say to each of you here this evening, leave here and get on the Internet. In the days ahead, go visit the library. If you’re in Atlanta, go visit the King center.
And so it was. He prophesized his death. On April 9, 1968 with an entourage of over 300,000 people walking behind his horse-drawn coffin, Dr. martin Luther King, Jr. was laid to rest at the South View Cemetery in Atlanta.
And I was looking down writing, and I said yes. And the next minute I felt something beating on my chest. Before I knew it I had been stabbed by this demented woman. I was rushed to Harlem Hospital ... and the X-rays revealed that the tip of the blade was on the edge of my aorta, the main artery. And once that's punctured, you drown in your own blood--that's the end of you.
… We have an opportunity to make America a better nation. And I want to thank God, once more, for allowing me to be here with you. You know, several years ago, I was in New York City autographing the first book that I had written. And while sitting there autographing books, a demented black woman came up. The only question I heard from her was, "Are you Martin Luther King?"
I'm delighted to see each of you here tonight in spite of a storm warning.
This speech moved me personally even more than his famous “I Have a Dream Speech”:
The day before Dr. King’s death, as if he foresaw it, Dr. King delivered his final speech “I’ve been to the Mountaintop.”
In closing, we must discuss 1968 because it’s a year America and the World will never forget. Two of our finest and brightest were assassinated: Martin Luther King, Jr. on a balcony at the Lorraine Motel on April 4 in Memphis, Tennessee and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on June 5th.
And that leads us to the most tragic year of Dr. King’s life, 1968.
In March, 1965, the Selma to Montgomery march took place where Viola Liuzzo was killed driving marchers back to Selma. In August 1966, Dr. King marched for open housing in Chicago and was stoned.
… From every mountainside, let freedom ring. When we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are Free at last!"
This will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with a new meaning, "My country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring."
… I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight.
So we have come to cash this check -- a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.
This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."
…we have come here today to dramatize an appalling condition. In a sense we have come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our Republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.
The reason I can't follow the old eye-for-an-eye philosophy is that it ends up leaving everyone blind. Somebody must have sense and somebody must have religion. We are moving up a mighty highway toward the city of Freedom. There will be meandering points. There will be curves and difficult moments, and we will be tempted to retaliate. But I'm going to say to you 'Wait a minute, Birmingham. Somebody's got to have some sense in Birmingham.
In June of 1963, civil rights leader Medgar Evers was assassinated at his home. And on August 28, Dr. King delivered his unforgettable “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. These are my favorite quotes from that speech:
1963 was another significant year in the brief life of Dr. King. In April, he was arrested for a sit-in in Birmingham, Alabama and wrote his famous “Letter from a Birmingham jail.” Here’s an excerpt from that letter:
In 1959, Dr. King and his wife traveled to India to learn more about the teachings of Mahatma Ghandi, laying the foundation for Dr. King’s non-violent movement.
In 1948, Dr. King was ordained a Baptist minister, received his Bachelor of Arts degree in sociology, and at age 19 entered Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, from which he was graduated with a Bachelor of Divinity degree at age 22 in 1951.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was born in Atlanta, Georgia on January 15, 1929 and galvanized America to correct years of wrong. He made America begin to live up to its promise of equality, justice and fair play for all.
Not too long after, Stevie and I’m proud to say, one of my managers, stood with Coretta Scott King, civil rights and congressional leaders in the Rotunda of the United States Capitol when the statue of Dr.. King was unveiled.
In addition, the program was moved from the base of the Washington Monument to the steps of the United States Capitol where Congress meets. Music superstars and major political figures united in speech, song and thought that day and millions of Americans were moved. Stevie’s speech was passionate and made a difference in the psyche of America and on Capitol Hill. This time, the results were dramatically different than the first march.
Only this time he enlisted a new team, which included one of my managers, and a different strategy. People came in from all over America by car, bus, rail & air with petitions and were organized to lobby members of congress after the march.
Unfortunately, while the march garnered a lot of attention, and temporarily focused hundreds of thousands of Americans on the holiday, it did little to move the opponents on Capitol Hill. So Stevie decided to lead a second march.
[[[Play Stevie Wonder’s Song: Happy Birthday]]]
Concerned with the slow pace of the bill moving through Congress, Stevie Wonder used his pen to first personalize his efforts in support of the holiday.
Here’s the inside story. A story you and few Americans have heard; and were it not for this part of the story, it may have taken many more years to get the King Holiday passed, or maybe it wouldn’t have passed at all.
It should be noted that Congressman Conyers resubmitted the legislation during each and every congressional session over the 15 years.
With such compelling arguments against the holiday, let’s look at what happened over the 15 years to get it passed?
Fortunately, to this last argument, then Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole pointed out to those critics '"I suggest they hurry back to their pocket calculators and estimate the cost of 300 years of slavery, followed by a century or more of economic, political and social exclusion and discrimination"
But perhaps the biggest argument against the holiday was that it would cost too much. One estimate was $8 billion for the government and private sectors combined; and some said they feared the King Holiday would be viewed as a concession to African-Americans for slavery.
It wasn’t easy. It took 15 years to overcome a highly and well coordinated effort to block the King Holiday. For example, Senator Jesse Helms, R-NC called Dr. King a communist; only two “individuals” had been honored with a national holiday-- George Washington and Christopher Columbus. Some argued “Why King? Why not Abraham Lincoln or John F. Kennedy?”
Before telling you how and why my friend Stevie got involved, let’s talk about the difficult path to the passage of the King Holiday Bill sponsored by Detroit Congressman John Conyers.
Well, it’s none other than the incomparable Mr. Stevie wonder!
We’re here this evening to commemorate the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; to understand the significance and meaning of his national holiday; and to learn a little about the “man.”
I didn’t hesitate to accept your invitation to speak about Dr. King because it was only recently that I fully understood how this holiday came to be.
I’d like to thank Clyde Johnson and the Student Government Association for thinking of me and invited me to join you this evening.
Phyllis Nasados, Sharon Englert-Sandlin, Darryl Brookins, my personal trainer Mike Cuellar, and to all of you students here at the Great Onyx Job Corps – Good Evening.