Keynote Address: Dr. Martin Luther King Celebration Durham 1/15/2020

The following is a reprint of a Keynote Address to Durham City/County employees celebrating Dr Martin Luther King on January 15, 2020. It is a reprint in its entirety.

I’m not exactly sure who’s idea it was to invite me to be here and share some thoughts with you today. I suspect it’s someone familiar with my current work with Made in Durham. For those of you who aren’t familiar, Made in Durham is a non profit organization that works with many of the programs in Durham dedicated to helping our youth prepare and connect to rewarding careers. We work with those organizations to ensure that they have what they need to be successful, so our youth can be successful. And that’s a big lift ladies and gentlemen. So many of our Durham youth and young adults are living in a world that has not been kind to them. Facing poverty, racism, and daily chaos, their life circumstance does not often reward patience nor provide them many easy options. 

My childhood on the other hand, was much kinder to me. I was raised in a place and time that allowed me to believe in good, in kindness.  To aspire to be great, and to step into leadership.  As I was growing up, my parents held up John F Kennedy and Martin Luther King as examples of true heroes. We mourned their deaths as a family; staying home from school, gathered around the television for their funerals. I was old enough to comprehend the profound sense of loss, but too young to appreciate the pending sense of anxiety for the movement and the country. As I got older and watched the speeches and read the books, I understood the purpose, the history so much better; but honestly, never the raw, bone deep, gut wrenching emotion until I was invited to participate in the Preacher King Tour in 2018.

2018 marked the 50th anniversary of Dr King’s death. To commemorate his death and celebrate his life, Memphis planned a large ceremony with many key leaders of the civil rights movement as speakers. New Hope Church in Durham, led by Pastor Benji Kelly, put together a trip to participate in the anniversary…The Preacher King Tour. A 5 day bus tour designed to follow in the footsteps of Dr. King with stops in Atlanta, Birmingham, Memphis, Selma and Montgomery. It would occur during the 50th anniversary week and we would actually attend the official ceremony in Memphis. Now, I am not a member of New Hope Church but was invited by my friend Jes Averhart, who is a member, to participate. And I jumped at the chance, thinking it would be super interesting and enlightening. It turned out however, to be a profoundly impactful experience that will remain with me for the balance of my life. I’d like to share a little bit of that with you today.

Over the course of the five days of the trip, we visited dozens of churches, museums, and historic sites.  We heard stories about the infamous events from people who lived them; we saw and touched moments in time.  We sat in the Ebenezer Baptist Church on the edge of our seat as a Church member and survivor walked us through the dreadful day that four young black girls, doing nothing more than getting dressed in their choir robes in the basement of the church, were killed in the infamous bombing attack. We walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, many hand in hand, sometimes singing, but mostly eerily quiet.  We stood at the entrance of the Lorraine Motel room and looked out at the balcony, vividly imaging Dr King standing there, leaning against the railing, facing the very building where the eventual shot rang out and ended his life. We sat at the ceremony that both celebrated his life and mourned his death in Memphis as a crowd of thousands stood in absolute total silence while the bell tolled 39 times; slowly and dramatically commemorating each of the 39 years of his short life. 

There is so much to say about what I saw and felt during those five days, but not nearly enough time. So today I’d like to share just four “ah ha” moments that I experienced during that trip that made me sit up and pay attention, and 

  • to think differently about Dr King.…
  • to recognize the similarities to my work in Made in Durham …
  • to challenge my view of Durham, as my community, my home.  

And so I’m going to ask you to do the same…challenge you. Challenge you to do these 4 things today:

1. Put your Gray Away

2. Hit up a Slam

3. Prioritize Prosperity

4. Embrace Uncomfortable

PUT YOUR GRAY AWAY

A lot has been written and said about the great Martin Luther King, but what first struck me on this trip was how incredibly young he was by the standards of power and leadership in the 1950’s and 60’s. His rise to the leader of this movement began in his mid 20’s and by 35 years old, he had already won the Nobel Peace Prize. In an era that didn’t recognize black or young as credible, he was both.  So yeah, I quit believing that gray hair is a necessary prerequisite for change. My work at Made in Durham has only reinforced my opinion that gray is overrated.   As I sit across from our Durham youth members, I have come to understand that their own lived experiences earn them the right to lead the change they want to see. Not despite their age, but because of it.  So I challenge each and everyone of you…put your gray away…and engage a youth as an equal partner tomorrow in some conversation or some task. You’ll be surprised by what that partnership can produce.

HIT UP A SLAM

Dr. King’s oratory skills were and still are,  legendary. But what I learned through this tour is that while his thirst for learning fed those skills, his need to share those words is what mattered to him.  While he is most famous for one speech,  I Have a Dream, and one letter, The Letter from Birmingham Jail, do you know he actual wrote 450 speeches and 5 books in his short life?  450…for real! He didn’t write all those speeches and books because he wanted to be a professional writer. He wrote as an outlet for his thoughts, his feelings, his experiences and shared them with the world. So we could learn right along with him and we could be inspired to act. Over 50 years later, they are words we strive to live by.  

That thirst for knowledge, to learn, to express, is present in every youth born in Durham. I’ve seen it firsthand. It is often times a bridge between their reality and our Durham reality. Listening to the written works of several of our Made in Durham youth members has literally brought me to tears and inspired me to stay in this job way longer than I had planned. Just like Dr King, they write as an outlet; to share, to inspire and to change their reality. But also just like Dr. King, their words MUST FIRST BE HEARD FIRST to matter. So I challenge each and every one of you….Hit up a Slam….go hang out this weekend at one of the many youth poetry slams going on throughout Durham, and listen, really listen to the rhythm of the emotion. Let them inspire you to act.

PRIORITIZE PROSPERITY

The third thing that this trip helped me to better understand is that Dr King’s agenda wasn’t just civil rights, but was also human rights.  That’s not to say he ever, ever diminished the importance of civil rights nor the fight to end racial discrimination. In 1963, as he fought for the Civil Rights Act, some questioned the value of regulating what was seen as a moral issue. Dr King’s response to that is classic King, saying…

“That while it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me… but it can keep him from lynching me.”  Shortly thereafter, the historic Civil Rights Act was passed into law.

Dr. King continued to tour the country after that, but instead of claiming victory on the war for racial equality, he began raging a new one: a war on poverty. 

He shared the story of why that was so important in a speech in which he said, “ I tried to tell the nation about a dream I had. I must confess to you this morning that since that sweltering August afternoon in 1963, my dream has often turned into a nightmare. I’ve seen my dream shattered as I’ve walked the streets of Chicago and see Negroes, young men and women with a sense of utter hopelessness because they can’t find jobs. I’ve seen my dream shattered as I’ve been through Appalachia and I’ve seen my white brothers along with Negroes living in such poverty”.   Dr King taught us that creating the opportunity to live a free and prosperous life, requires the opportunity for both: freedom and prosperity. You need both. Durham’s youth deserve the right to live a life of freedom; freedom from the barriers that block their access to prosperity.  They deserve to inherit a Durham from all of us that never stops prioritizing their prosperity, and gives them the freedom to share in it. So I challenge each and every one of you today. Play a role in their barrier free access to prosperity. Find a Durham youth a job experience this summer.  Don’t leave it to chance. Show them that freedom and prosperity does exist for them in Durham

EMBRACE UNCOMFORTABLE

And the fourth moment; The biggest moment for me in this trip was for the first time… feeling, actually feeling, the depth and breath of the hatred and indifference that lived side by side during this time. As a human being it is beyond my brain, beyond my heart, to understand what I saw in those museums; what I heard from those who lived and survived it.  How does one human being hate that blindly, that violently. And at the same time, how do others feel nothing; no sense of outrage or concern, but instead live their lives, blissfully ignoring it.  I will share with you that when you’re standing there.. in that moment, staring at all that evidence of hate and indifference, you would think that anger would take over and engulf you. But instead, there is this incredible sense of hopelessness that surrounds you. You’re confused and uncomfortable. You look around to see who’s watching you, as you watch them. In your head you’re thinking, how am I supposed to feel or act right now?  And you wonder, if I feel this way, 50 years later, how was it possible that so many black Americans, having lived this daily, took to the streets to demonstrate, not in violent resistance, but in peaceful, prayerful defiance.  

And it’s NOW, right then in that moment, as you stand there, that you understand the true power of Martin Luther King. He knew that feeling. And he used that feeling. He very intentionally used every word in those 450 speeches to get you comfortable with the uncomfortable. He told you how to feel and act in that moment by painting a vision of what comfortable looked like. It was a world where “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers”… where “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood”. He took normal acts…holding hands and gathering at tables…and made them normal for all of us. When I first got to Durham, I immediately fell in love with Durham’s ability to be comfortable with the uncomfortable.  I  spoke of it often to newcomers as something they would need to learn to embrace. Recently though, I must confess, I’m finding it difficult to find the comfortable in the uncomfortableness of Durham.  So my challenge to each and everyone of you is this: let’s work on that together. Force yourself to have an uncomfortable conversation today, and find the comfort in just listening, learning, thinking. No judgement, just comfort. Embrace the uncomfortable. Dr King would surely approve.

And that begs the question, what else about Durham would the great Dr King approve of?  I got to thinking about that. If Dr. King were alive today, and asked ME to give him a tour of Durham…because, let’s be real… we all know, its ME he would ask to give him a tour of Durham, right?  Just want to be clear. 

I would say, well Dr. King, like you we value learning and creativity in Durham. So let me start by showing you our Universities and Colleges that produce young scholars like you. I have no doubt he would be smiling ear to ear at the growth and success of North Carolina Central University since he himself was a graduate of  an HBCU. I can picture  Dr King, as a Moorehouse man,  turning and telling me how that great institution “molded his convictions and gave him the confidence to step out… be bold, be creative in his thinking”.

And of course, I’d say, Oh I can totally see the whole confidence, bold, creative thing going on NCCU.  I mean, seriously?  Did you see that Coach Moton offered Bronny a full ride scholarship to attend and play for Central the other week? Bronny! That’s some serious confidence….

Next, I’d take him to see our incredible cultural venues like The Carolina Theater and Hayti and the DPAC, knowing how much he loooooves music and the arts. He would no doubt turn and tell me the story of the time when he was called into to an important meeting with the staff at the Southern Christian Leadership Coalition.  And as he sat at the table to begin the meeting, someone slipped him a note to tell him that they had gotten tickets to a James Brown concert at a nearby College. He’d tell me how he immediately stood up from the large group gathered and said “Sorry ya all…but… James Brown is on and I’m gone!”

We’d  laugh and joke as we continued our tour, walking all over Durham; checking out all the neighborhoods, and schools, and the business parks, and start up hubs, and sports stuff, and the good food, and all that’s real about Durham; So he sees it all. Clearly espousing pride in our diversity and our people along the way.

And of course I would save Black Wall Street for last, walking him down Parish Street telling him all about the history of Black owned business in Durham and the prosperity it created all on its own, despite the times.  I can see Dr King taking it all in, stopping on the corner right down the street from here.  Looking around, seemingly pondering the thought,  I see him turning to me and saying: Casey, from what I’ve learned and what I seen,  here is my hope for you.  I hope that Durham quits espousing and admiring all of its diversity, and starts living it again. He would say to me, “I have always believed that the real problem is that through our scientific genius we’ve made the world a neighborhood. But through our moral and spiritual genius we’ve failed to make it a brotherhood”.  He would say…But I feel the brotherhood here in Durham: Live it again Durham, Go Live it again. 

And finally, I imagine that he would say to me, before I leave, take me to your public servants. Take me to City Hall, and the County Courthouse and to the public health centers, and community libraries. To the neighborhood policing stations, and rec centers. Take me to the people who really make Durham what Durham is…so I may remind them,  “Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve.  You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love”. He would say to me, they are the greatness of Durham, Casey,  and we need to go thank them.  

So we would end our tour of Durham right here, with all of you…the public servants of Durham doing the work that most people think just happens.  He would be impressed by your purpose and your passion. He would inspire you to keep going and he would thank you profusely, as do I.

Last week when I wrote this speech, I planned to end here. But we all know that Durham isn’t the same as it was last week when I wrote this. And I wouldn’t be honoring the spirit of the great Martin Luther King by not acknowledging the tragedy of circumstances at McDougald Terrace; for it was Dr. King himself that said “our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter”. But it was also Dr. King that said the “the time is always right to do something right”. As I stand here today, after witnessing the Mayor and all the elected leadership of my community standing side by side yesterday with the leadership of McDougald Terrace, united in their love of Durham and its people, I have complete and unshakeable faith, that Durham will do what’s right. And like everyone I know in Durham, I stand ready to be part of that solution. And I say to you Mayor, as the song goes, just put me in coach. I’m ready today!

I feel blessed to live in Durham, North Carolina. I’ve made a conscious choice to call this place my home. Durham’s soul and mine have become authentically intertwined.  Which means my soul and yours have become the same. And that ladies and gentlemen requires me then to bestow on you a traditional Irish blessing before I end…well,  we are in Church…and I am Irish…and all that..so here goes….

May you be poor in misfortune, 

And Rich in blessings,

Slow to make enemies,

And fast to make friends!

 May the winds of fortune sail you,

And May you sail a gentle sea.

May it always be the other guy

who says, “this drink’s on me.”

Thank you for all you do for Durham…and on behalf of Made in Durham, a special thank you for all you do for Durham’s youth.  God Bless.

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