The confluence of three historic events--the Emancipation Proclamation (1863), Martin Luther King's "I have a dream speech" (1963) and the second inauguration of our first African-American president (2003)--was a watershed moment that should have brought out the best in any speaker worth his or her salt.
But the speeches I heard at public events during the course of two days left me feeling disappointed, frustrated, and bored. Almost without exception, religious and political leaders here in Pasadena spoke in platitudes and feel-good generalities, talking about the need to put aside our differences, come together in unity, etc. etc. Many distorted Martin Luther King's vision of social justice into the individualistic American Dream ("work hard and you'll succeed"). None raised any controversial issues, like the need to address systemic poverty, economic disparity, our bloated military budget, and endless wars, that got Dr. King into trouble and made him a genuine prophet.
There were two exceptions. At the Jackie Robinson Center (named after the famous athlete who brought the color barrier and became the first black player in the major leagues), an award is given out to elementary and high school students who created art or wrote essays honoring Dr. Martin Luther King.
The two first-place winners of the essay content were both white girls, tall and willowy, but other winners were Asian, black and Latino. I would love to have heard what they had to say.
What the junior high winner said was that we need to take seriously the problem of homelessness, and added that there are over a million homeless kids attending school. This number was mind-boggling. How can it be that a million kids are homeless in a country as rich as ours? I commend this girl for raising such a disturbing question--the kind of provocative question that Dr. King would have asked.
Madeline Cameron, a 16-year-old high school student from the Pasadena Peace and Justice Academy, was also a winner in every sense. She spoke about Martin Luther King's commitment to peace, his courage in speaking out against the Vietnam war, and how we have been embroiled in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have cost countless lives and taken money away from needed social programs. She also brought up the infamous wall separating the United States and Mexico, and how US economic policies have left Mexican farmers destitute and forced many to come here to earn a liveliness. She spoke with great feeling of the hundreds who have died trying to cross the border to find work in the United States.
She spoke from the heart, and with real knowledge, about issues that Dr King would cared deeply about.
"She truly understands Dr. King," I thought, my eyes brimming with tears.
I was grateful that some members of the rising generation understand, and sad that most of our leaders don't want to understand, what Dr. King stood for.
I said this to one of the teachers at the Peace and Justice Academy, he replied, "Yeah, so many people try to neuter Martin Luther King."
I want to commend not only the girls who spoke truth so eloquently, but also those who selected them as winners of the MLK essay contest. These educators gave young people a platform on which to voice their deeply felt concerns--concerns that all Americans should take seriously.
Here is Madeline Cameron's essay, used with her permission.
Martin Luther King Day Essay
by Madeline Cameron, 16 years old
Pasadena Peace and Justice Academy
August 28, 1963, over 200,000 people witnessed one of the most powerful speeches in American history. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. expressed his hope for a broken nation, one that was tainted with segregation, violence, and compromised morals. I believe he is one of the greatest role models in history, not only striving to stop violence, but stressing the importance of stopping it in a peaceful manner:
“We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence.”
Our nation has come a long way since Dr. King gave his speech. But we are still a broken society. True, our country has made great leaps and bounds in its mission to expel racism and prejudice. No longer do we have drinking fountains that proclaim, “whites only”. But there is still violence in the streets of our cities. There is still corruption in our governments. And there is still persecution in our communities. My dream for America is that we as a nation take the first steps toward world peace, setting an example for other countries in the midst of a world flaming with the heat of violence.
We have far to go. For 11 years, the United States has been a major player in the war in Afghanistan. We have spent over $468 billion since it started, money that could have been used to support our homeless, our schools, our hospitals, and our environment. But money is not the only thing the war has cost us. Since 2001, over 2000 Americans have lost their lives in the Afghanistan war. Many more have been permanently injured. And it is estimated that 10, 878 Afghan women, men, and children have died in the war.
In “Why I am Opposed to the War in Vietnam”, Dr. King showed that war was the enemy and manipulator of the poor and marginalized, taking advantage of their vulnerable state and sending them to fight for the country that betrayed them.
“I speak out against this war, not in anger, but with anxiety and sorrow in my heart, and, above all, with a passionate desire to see our beloved country stand as the moral example of the world. I speak out against this war because I am disappointed with America.”
As a world superpower, America must set the example. After centuries of experience, I am horrified that America has not acknowledged the futility of war. War is not a way of solving problems; instead, it exacerbates them. I do not believe our world will ever be completely without violence.
But there will never be hope if we do not strive towards peace. However, striving for peace does not simply demand giving up physical violence. Recently, five students from my school visited the wall between the U.S. border and Mexico. Mexico was just a few hundred feet away, but because of the conflict between the U.S. and Mexico, the border was almost inaccessible, and highly dangerous. Many Americans resent immigrants, thinking that they take jobs desperately needed in this economy. In reality, Americans refuse the menial jobs that immigrants take; and furthermore, we are the main reason that immigrants are forced to come seeking work. The U.S. government donates millions of dollars every year to subsidize grain production, producing an artificially low price of grain with which Mexican farmers cannot compete. Forced off their land, they come to America desperate for work, but instead, they are deported, taken from their families, or thrown in jail. The U.S. is creating a problem, but unwilling to admit that they are responsible for the economic destruction in another country. Is this not violence too?
I may not live to see the world achieve peace, or offer a solution to the unfair treatment of undocumented immigrants, or ensure economic justice for all who wish to work an honest day’s labor. Yet over time we have seen the end of racial segregation, and the beginning of gender equality. My hope is that my generation will open its eyes to the injustice in the world, even if it’s painful to see. “We cannot walk alone,” Dr. King said, “…we shall always march ahead.”
Although it may seem an insurmountable task, there are many others that share our dream. They too find inspiration in Dr. King, believing that we can make a change. It is rarely easy to stand up for what is right, but the consequence will be far worse if we stay silent. I want my generation
to say, “We created a better world. We stood up for what was right, and the world listened. We made the first move, and the world followed in our footsteps.”