Ben Hunter speaks at Seattle Colleges' 2017 Martin Luther King Jr. celebration at Mount Zion Baptist Church. Credit: Seattle Colleges
On Friday, January 13, public officials, school children, the faithful and members of the public gathered at Mount Zion Baptist Church in Seattle for a celebration of the life and dream of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The celebration, sponsored by Seattle Colleges, has been running for 44 years. Benjamin Hunter, a South Seattle resident who calls himself “a socialpreneir, educator, community organizer and musician,” gave the keynote. The text of his speech is below. It will also be aired every Sunday through the end of February on Channel 28.
My work revolves around looking to the past. Preparing for something like this brings me back to those that have spoken on this issue before me, in another place or another period of time. The philosophies from every elder before us who watched and witnessed the ebb and flow of a nation created. The smell of the air, the sound of the wind, even the taste of things enhance or fade with the evolutions and devolutions of a growing society. I think of them and say thank you.
This country itself was founded at the dawn of a new period. The Age of Reason it was called. The Enlightenment, placing reason as the prime motivator for action, helping determine our current society through ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Helping determine our country as a place for tolerance, equality, freedom. Fundamentally, that we are all treated as rational beings. That we all have the ability to self-determine, to have an identity, and allow that to shape our lives with the mold that fancies our passions and talents. To be an individual, to think for ourselves, work for ourselves, live for ourselves.
But right out of the gate, Americans engaged in the same type of social behavior from whence they came. Slavery and indentured servitude built this nation into the prosperous country that it is. This is fundamental when exploring the psyche of American politics and society. Because it identifies at the root, the hypocrisy [upon which] this country has been founded. While racism is a towering problem in this country — and around the world — racism is implicitly folded into a larger discussion of class. This is what Dr. King spoke of. Because we aren’t just fighting a war on racism, we are fighting for justice in all forms of oppression.
Since the formation of this country, it wasn’t just blacks and Native Americans getting trampled on, but anyone who wasn’t a rich, white male. And so since has the entire narrative been written from [that] perspective. Alongside that narrative is this position of power, of privilege. So much so that it disallows, even now in 2017, the idea of putting anything other than white and male within the envelope of power. So that when we elect a black president, we can shout out to the world how evolved we are, how progressive we are, the example that should be followed from the land of the free. Yet we can still lock up people of color at rates far higher than whites. We close down schools in low-income neighborhoods. We [mark] up the price of good, healthy food, and allow the poor to feast on McDonalds and Pepsi.
Our establishment has never wanted to accept any other group as powerful for fear that it would defy the supposed truth that has been portrayed for hundreds of years. And as the decades go by, subtle and not so subtle tricks and tactics develop to curtail, disrupt, denigrate and dismantle any movement that looks to empower themselves. Because sharing power is not the American way.
So when you tell people that they have self-determination, that they have an identity, that they can think and work and live for themselves, except when they’re Black, or a woman, or gay, or poor, you insert into that person or those persons the same kind of psychological disregard for each other. You instill inside them that same insidiousness, that same apathy, that same disregard for each other. That power can’t be shared, but I can still exist as an individual.
This is what I see as our biggest folly. This is what I regard as our primary concern. Because it’s more than race, or gender, or even class. It comes down to a position that has been curated by 500 years of false advertising: That individuality will give us life, liberty, and happiness. That capitalist self-determination will somehow produce a tolerant and united society.
We built this nation only considering a small portion of the people that were a part of it. And now we are still grappling with that fundamental flaw, so much so that we don’t know how to acknowledge others. And that mechanism for bringing us together has pulled us apart. All of this technology has pulled us so far apart, that we now find more solace in talking to Siri than to a real person. We’d rather hear stories from our friends on Facebook and through Twitter than through conversation.
We can’t acknowledge people if we don’t know how to talk to them. We can’t empathize with people if we only rely on emoticons.
Our senses are the only thing we have to guide us through this world. Instead, we’ve traded them in for an algorithm. We’ve put our trust in a robot of whose purpose is to give us what we want, so that all we know is getting what we want. We play video games that immerse us in war, so that we no longer have the perspective of a civilian. Our relationships are through a virtual reality that feeds our selfishness over our selflessness. It draws on our need to consume unnecessary products and things, over soulful and enlightening conversation. This emphasis on consumption affects the most vulnerable of minds, the most absorbent of minds, the most malleable of minds, those of our children.
We are what we see, and if this is what we feed our children, then what else can we possibly expect out of them? Are they not our future? Are they not our hopes and dreams? Are they not our legacy? What is the legacy of our children? What is the legacy of the United States?
I bring up acknowledgement because we don’t know how to talk to each other anymore. We don’t know how to have differing opinions without callousness. We don’t know how to engage in debate without our teeth exposed. We’re out for blood, yet we’re supposed to collectively be striving for a better America for everyone.
Dr. King understood this on a profound level. He was a fierce opponent of the Vietnam war for not just what it did to our veterans, but for that false advertising. Promoting freedom by having people who are not free in America kill others that are not free elsewhere. He said:
“And as I ponder the madness of Vietnam and search within myself for ways to understand and respond in compassion, my mind goes constantly to the people of that peninsula. I speak now not of the soldiers of each side, not of the ideologies of the Liberation Front, not of the junta in Saigon, but simply of the people who have been living under the curse of war for almost three continuous decades now. I think of them, too, because it is clear to me that there will be no meaningful solution there until some attempt is made to know them and hear their broken cries.”
And are we still not caught up in that same war today in the Middle East? In parts of Africa. At home in North Dakota. Or Baltimore.
And so to acknowledge means that we must alter our system of values.
Our current values are money and power. Our wars are based on money and power. Everything our government does has a bottom line, and it is what our social policy is based on, environmental policy is based on, education policy is based on. And if our policies are for the benefit of our country, through [which] power is defined as rich, white and male, how do we expect to create policy that is equitable and fair?
The first step of our mighty revolution must start with a redefinition of the values of our American and Global polity. We must draw lines in the sand, and say you cannot and will not cross these lines. To cross these lines goes against our collective humanity. To cross these lines goes against the sanctity of our creed as Americans.
To do this isn’t easy. To do this is to go against a machine that was built and has been over and over recalibrated to combat our collectivism, to combat our empathy and connection and reliance and trust in one another. To do this we must challenge the system with which we live, but we must challenge it going back to our founding. The building blocks that our founding fathers were determined to construct this country with were fundamentally sound. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Built on Reason. It wasn’t that our individuality was better than our collective, but that our collective was made stronger through our distinctness and our uniqueness. And that our love for each other would fortify that individuality.
We have come to the precipice that is our now. We have come to that moment where another period must start and we must recalibrate. The fierce urgency of now is upon us, and it requires the only type of force that can withstand the mechanisms of division. That force must be love. But don’t get me twisted, because this love isn’t unicorns and pink roses. It’s not just holding hands, or singing songs. This love is backbone. This love is a fire down below. This love is a juggernaut. This love is a steel chain linking our histories, our cultures, our colors, our futures.
Dr. King said, “When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am not speaking of that force which is just emotional bosh. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life.”
I read this over and over, because something about that seemed so right and true, but also unsettling. The supreme unifying principle of life. All the great religions.
I met up with a friend who talked to me about growing up Muslim. He said, “there are 1.5 billion Muslims, some brown, some black, men, women, and none of them get along. If we could all just decide to join hands we could do anything.”
Why is it so hard for us to harness this love, this supreme unifying principle of life?
I went to North Dakota in September with my sweetheart to bring food and supplies and stand in solidarity with Standing Rock. Over 200 sovereign nations coming together to support each other, to protect each other, to protect the water. We spent the days working, organizing donations and lending a hand where [we] were needed, and spent the night around a great fire listening to stories and songs, watching dances, and being part of this unifying principle, this unwavering force of Love. A love that worked together and stood side-by-side to protect what’s sacred. A love that laughed, sang, and danced together to feed what’s sacred. A love that welcomed anybody that believed in the values of that Love.
When we say we need to change our values, we are engaging in a commitment to establish better relationships. A relationship with ourselves, our neighbors, our earth and our sky. Our love must be a relationship. A relationship fortified by our senses.
To see the valleys and the mountains. To look in each other’s eyes.
To taste the spices and flavors that make up our vast collection of cultures from the diverse regions around the world.
To listen to the wind and the thunder. To hear our voices and rhythms and music.
To feel the warmth of the sun or the soft morning rain. To feel the touch of a loved one.
To smell the flowers, the food, or a person’s scent.
Our love must be rooted in our senses, because that is how we acknowledge each other, and that is how we acknowledge this earth.
Our country must be founded on the idea that we all count. At the moment only a few count. But it’s not because we don’t have the capacity to love, but that we’ve been groomed not to. We must Make America Again, in the way that it was meant to be.
The how is the tough part. The how can be done in many ways, within our current system and outside of it.
Already there are people and groups developing new ways to co-exist, instead of the rising cost of isolation [in] many apartment complexes. Novel ways to run business so that more people have ownership of their work. Creative alternatives to teach and learn so that children don’t fall in the cracks of school systems that don’t meet their needs. Revisiting traditional farming techniques that yield organic, healthy food, that take care of our land, and re-instill pride and respect to our farmers. These things are all being done outside of our government. These things are being done by grassroots efforts, by small communities thinking of new ideas to tackle these systems of oppression.
At the same time, there are more women and people of color in state and national office than ever before, allowing more voices and representation in our government. Because we need black and brown brothers and sisters in office. We need LGBTQ people in office. We need people in office that represent our constituency, or else that power remains rich, male and white.
It’s important that we marry both of these strategies. It’s important that we organize, and rally beside each other. It’s important that we express ourselves and be heard, that we engage in activities and hobbies that pique our interests, our passions, while also advancing our independent and collective culture. And it’s OK to be angry, rather it’s important to be angry to remind us that we have souls, and minds, and hearts, and self-determination.
Dr. King said, “These are the times for real choices and not false ones. We are at the moment when our lives must be placed on the line if our nation is to survive its own folly. Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest.”
We need to stop looking down, or looking at screens, or allowing our headphones to deafen us to the sounds around us. We must be aware to be alive. And we must acknowledge to be acknowledged.
I’d like to end with a poem by Langston Hughes:
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!
I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.
Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”
Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.
O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!