Bethlehem Baptist Church Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Service

January 19, 2014

Good evening. Thank you, Rev. Whisler, for your kind words of introduction.

Pastor Evans, it is always a privilege to be in the warmth of fellowship at Bethlehem Baptist Church. Thank you and all the members of Bethlehem for once again honoring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with this important community event. It is an honor to be here.

It is somewhat daunting to follow Lyndsey Captain to this lectern – what an inspiring speech. Let’s give her a hand, one more time.

I’d like to introduce Devan Allen, who is with me today. She’s a leader in our community and I am fortunate that she is my District Director.

Ms. Victoria Dodd, who as always, has done an amazing job of organizing this event, nine years running – has asked me to speak on the theme of “Freedom and Equality: the Hope for our Future.”

As I really focused on those words, it forced me to ask some questions that I had not really considered before.

Freedom and equality. Both are certainly goals for which Dr. King dedicated his life and his ministry to advocating for. But are freedom and equality two, distinct and separate concepts – or are they two ideals which are inextricably linked?

In other words, can someone be free if they are not an equal in our society? And can someone be equal, if they are not free? Something for us to think about.

And the second part of today’s theme, “the Hope for our Future.” Are freedom and equality prerequisites for a hopeful future?

I think we can all agree they are. But let’s think about what is implied in that statement. When you hope for something, you’re generally hoping for something that you don’t yet have.

I hope I get that promotion at work.

I hope I get accepted to the college I want to go to.

I hope the Dallas Cowboys win another Super Bowl.

Ok, hope can be powerful, but we have to accept that some things may just not ever happen.

But it is human nature to hope for that which we do not have. And so when I consider the words: “Freedom and Equality: The Hope for Our Future,” I am thinking that what is being suggested there is that we do not yet have freedom, we do not yet have equality, and we must obtain those ideals, those concepts, which are enshrined in our Declaration of Independence and for which Dr. King fought so effectively for, in order to truly have hope for the future we want to see.

So let’s explore that hypothesis.

First off, we know that because of the civil rights movement, our country has made tremendous strides in the 50 years since Dr. King delivered his “I have a dream speech.” The obscenities of segregated restaurants, separate restrooms and water fountains, and many other such injustices have long since been eliminated.

Laws that require poll taxes or literacy tests to vote, laws which defy our nation’s constitutional guarantee under the 15th amendment of a universal right to vote, have long since been stricken.

Racial discrimination, as well as discrimination based upon gender, religion and other factors is illegal.

And progress, in many ways, is easy to see. In the 1960’s it was difficult for many African Americans, especially in the South, to register to vote, much less cast a ballot. In 2012, two-thirds of all eligible African Americans voted in the presidential election – and for the first time in history, that was higher than the percentage of white voters who turned out.

If some Texans from the 1950s or 60s time traveled to 2014, they would be astounded at what they saw. They would marvel at the diversity of a classroom in the Mansfield school district and a similar diversity in that school’s faculty and staff. They would be astonished at the multitude of races, nationalities, and faiths they would see when stepping foot on the campuses of UT Arlington or TCC Southeast. And if we took our time travelers to major private employers in our area – Lockheed Martin, General Motors, American Airlines – they would be stunned to see the numbers of not just African Americans, but Hispanics and Asian Americans – and women — in the workforce, often in management and supervisory positions.

So, it is undeniable – whether we look in a classroom in Mansfield, or whether we watch the State of the Union address, there has definitely been progress in this nation, and I think for that, Dr. King would rightfully be very happy and very proud.

Definitely more freedom, definitely more equality and certainly more reasons for hope.

But would Dr. King have been satisfied? Should we be satisfied?

Listen to his words from The Lincoln Memorial on that steamy August day in 1963:

“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. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Dr. King did not say that the Constitution was a promissory note to some Americans, or most Americans — he said it was a promise to every American.

And so, back to our theme, does every American have equality? Does every American have freedom? And can you have one without the other?

Earlier this month was the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s declaration of a war on poverty. Now President Johnson and Dr. King did not always agree – especially on the Vietnam War – but they shared the goal of eliminating racial discrimination in our laws and ultimately our society. That’s why LBJ passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 followed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, because he understood that without a real right to vote – unobstructed by evil devices like literacy tests and poll taxes – equality and freedom would forever be elusive.

Both LBJ and MLK would have to be proud of the fact 2 out of 3 African Americans voted two years ago. I also think they would be deeply disturbed that, just as voter participation is increasing in minority and younger populations, that there is a growing trend around the country to suddenly curtail access to the ballot box by enacting needless photo voter ID laws, shortening early voting days and hours and making it harder for young people to vote.

I think they would view these measures as threats to freedom and equality.

As he launched the war on poverty in 1964, LBJ said this:

“This great rich, restless country can offer opportunity and education and hope to all – all, black and white, North and South, sharecropper and city dweller. These are the enemies: poverty, ignorance, disease. They are our enemies, not our fellow man, not our neighbor. And these enemies too – poverty, disease, and ignorance – we shall overcome.”

That same year, as Dr. King accepted the Noble Peace Price, he said, “I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.”

Dr. King and LBJ both understood that for there to be true freedom – and true equality – voting rights were not enough. Ending segregation was not enough. There must be educational opportunity so that the shackles of illiteracy and ignorance could be broken. People had to have a chance to get healthy when they fell ill. And people had to be able to make a living.

That’s why the War on Poverty created Head Start and Title I funding for low-income schools, to see that the chance a child had to succeed in life would not be pre-ordained by their zip code or their parents’ bank account.

MLK said that “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.” The 1960’s gave us great strides in reducing those injustices in health care, particularly with the creation of Medicaid and Medicare.

And when we have increased educational quality and fairness and when we have increased health care access for all, we take great strides in reaching the goal that Dr. King had for all Americans, and the ultimate goal of the War on Poverty, and that is goal of economic justice. A time in our country when people are no longer consigned to lives of poverty, and are able to attain the dignity that Dr. King spoke of, a dignity that comes when one has a job that supports his or her family, a job that can provide a decent home in a safe community and a job that can put those three meals on the table each day.

So how are we doing? No doubt a lot better than in the 1960s’ The education and health care initiatives I mentioned, along with various economic measures like SNAP and unemployment insurance, have lifted millions out of poverty and given people new opportunities.

In Texas, we’re certainly blessed to have one of the strongest economies in the country, thanks to the hard work and innovation of our citizens. But in Texas, we still have a long way to go.

For example, on education:

Our average SAT scores? 47th in the nation.

Percentage of our population with a HS diploma? 50th – we’re dead last.

Without a HS diploma, it’s hard to break the poverty cycle. In fact, 86 percent of children whose parents do not have a high school diploma live in low-income families, compared to 33 percent of children whose parents have some college education.

On health care, something my staff and I have been working on a lot lately:

  • One out of four Texans – 6.4 million people – have no health insurance. That’s the highest rate in the nation. And yet, when we have the opportunity to expand health insurance – I might add at very little cost to the state – our state leadership says no. We’d rather remain the most uninsured state in the country.

And on economics:

  • The average household income for whites is right at $60,000. For African Americans and Hispanics, it’s $35,000.
  • We’re 42nd in homeownership rates
  • In Texas, 65 percent of Hispanic children and 58 percent of African American children live in low-income families.
  • And, one out of every four Texas children lives in poverty.

And we know that these are not abstract figures – these numbers represent people right here in our community – in Arlington, in Mansfield, in Grand Prairie.

And so on all of these measures that we could use to assess the twin virtues of freedom and equality, while we have clearly made progress, we still have a ways to go.

And I would argue that yes, if we are to have true, genuine hope for our future, the kind we all want to have, we must do better on the score of freedom and equality for all Americans.

So, back to the question – can someone be free if they are not an equal?

The Declaration of Independence says all men are created equal. We know this to be true, but we also know that the one out of four Texas children who live in poverty do not have equal opportunity.

But wait, some might say – they can go to school, get an education – they can be anything they want to be. Pull themselves up by their bootstraps. And certainly, there are success stories.

But if we believe, as Dr. King and President Johnson did, that education provides the path out of poverty, how do we expect these kids to break the cycle of poverty when one –third of teachers in low-income Texas middle schools are teaching outside their areas of expertise?

How does a child do well in school when her head is throbbing from the tooth ache she has because her parents are uninsured and can’t afford to take her to a dentist?

How does a child focus in the classroom when he didn’t have dinner the night before?

And that absence of equal opportunity binds those children. They are bound by the plagues of poverty, of inadequate education, of sub-par health care. And by definition, when one is bound, one is not free.

And so yes, I believe our dual objectives of Freedom and Equality are inextricably linked. To have one, we must achieve the other.

So, we have some work to do. And we need to start now. We need to resist what Dr. King called, “The tranquilizing drug of gradualism.” For if Dr. King was tired of waiting in 1963, we ought to be done with waiting in 2014.

And I don’t have to tell the congregation of Bethlehem Baptist Church that. I know you’re done with waiting. That’s why this church has helped our neighbors obtain GEDs and is helping at-risk youth get on the right path so they can succeed in school and beyond. That’s why you provide support for school-aged kids through tutoring and after-school programs.

And it is going to take all of us working together – the faith-based community, government, the business community and ordinary citizens – to make the difference we need to advance freedom and equality.

So let’s keep pushing.

Let’s make “no child left behind” a reality, not just a slogan.

Let’s see that our neighbors don’t go bankrupt just because they get sick or injured.

Let’s help people get to and from jobs and school and new opportunity by providing some real public transportation in Arlington and SE Tarrant County.

And let’s put an end to the cycle of debt that traps so many in our community by reining in the pay day lenders who charge immorally high interest rates.

We can do all of these things, and more. We just have to rededicate ourselves and remind ourselves that if we keep the Faith, with the Lord, all things are possible.

So let’s rededicate ourselves right now. Let’s commit to changing our community and our state for the better, and as we do, let us be guided by the words of Matthew Chapter 7, Verse 12: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you.”

Let’s bring Dr. King’s dream home for every Texan, for every American, and when we do – and I believe we will – we will no longer have to hope for Freedom and Equality.