Reflecting on Dr. King’s legacy during Black History Month

Back in the fall, just 24 hours before the 50 year anniversary of the March on Washington, I was in Washington, DC to meet with the President. There were 18 Mayors who had a seat around the table with him. We convened to paint a picture of youth violence in our hometowns.

I sat there, taking in my surroundings, the significance of that date, that time, that place and this man were not lost on me.  Just outside the room where we were seated, hundreds of people were making final preparations for the following day. In less than 24 hours, there, at the National Mall, President Obama, the nation’s first African-American Commander in Chief, would stand in the very spot that Dr. King stood 50 years prior and address the world.

As we manned our seats around that table, relaying the realities of violence in the streets of our home towns, the President’s advisors manned a revolving door to his ear, relaying the realities of violence on streets around the globe.  The weight of the world was visible on his shoulders, his face and throughout his once dark hair, but he never lost focus on the discussion at hand. In less than 24 hours, he would make history yet again, talking about how far we as a nation have come, but no doubt addressing all the ways in which more work is required.

I couldn’t stay for the historic events the next day, but I thought about them for the duration of my trip home and I wanted to take this opportunity to share some of those thoughts with you.

In 1963 Dr. King addressed the nation about his American Dream. He spoke about, what he called, the “bankruptcies of justice” that black men and women were experiencing in the US and in many dark corners around the globe. He spoke of the urgency of that moment. That place, that time, when all Americans would come together to fulfill a promise President Lincoln made 100 years before. The promise to all citizens, regardless of race, that we as a collective nation were entitled to the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. He called it our “sacred obligation” and spoke to the undeniable truth that many still didn’t feel so obliged to.

He had a dream in his heart and lay it to rest on the ears of those who stood before him.

Fifty years later there is no shortage of discussion surrounding his dream and where it stands today, even today as we celebrate Black History Month, that discussion is ongoing. At a time when Dr. King summoned his brothers and sisters to seek to satisfy their thirst for freedom “by avoiding the cup of bitterness and hatred”, I wonder if today he would feel that thirst has been quenched?

Perhaps the most obvious answer asks us to look back to 2008. Just as 250,000 people gathered to hear Dr. King’s dream, a reported 3 million gathered to witness the inauguration of the nation’s first black president. Now, to the average person, it might seem very cut and dry. Some may say, his dream surely had come to fruition.  Did Dr. King believe that day would ever arrive?  Did he dream beyond equal rights and see a day when an African American man would not only share those rights, but hold the highest office in the land?  Were he with us today, would Dr. King be satisfied? He would no doubt share the belief that we have come far, but he would acknowledge that our journey never truly ends. There is always more that can be done.

Dr. King spoke of never being satisfied so long as there were injustices to our brothers and sisters. He called upon each of us to “work with the faith that unearthed suffering is redemptive.” He asked us to go back. Back to those dark corners of the map. Back to our neighborhoods and to our homes. Back to where that dream can still be fulfilled. Back to where some light can still be shed.

He put his faith and his trust in each of us to build the future of our nation. To build the future out of our past. To rise above our challenges and bathe in that oasis of freedom and justice that he so often spoke of. And so today, in celebration of his life and in recognition of Black History Month, I ask for your help in doing just that.

I come to you today with my own sense of urgency, a sense of obligation that weighs heavily on my heart. One that hits a little closer to home. I know that the definition of the American Dream is still in limbo for many people in our own town. And I ask for your help in healing some of the injustices of our own Kansas City. Specifically the injustices of our youth.

If we are to see Dr. King’s dream truly fulfilled, we have to first understand the role we play in fulfilling it. When I think about our City and the people who make it best, I see living proof of that dream. A City bursting at the seams with talented and motivated individuals. A City full of possibility and opportunity.

But I realize many in our City may never realize the dreams that Martin Luther King spoke of. They may never know those dreams are actually out there waiting to be fulfilled. They may never know those dreams are theirs for the taking. They may never even know those dreams exist or know how hard those who came before them fought to make them possible. They may never know unless we – all of us- take it upon ourselves to show them the way Dr. King showed a nation that a brighter day is out there and it belongs to anyone who will seek and claim it.

But first, we must help our brothers and sisters know where to look. Because what good is a dream when you lay down at night if your reality interrupts it in the morning? What good is an education if you don’t share what you have learned with others? And what good is a future, if the ones who will lead us into it, don’t have the faintest idea of what to do once they get there?

So let me back up to that meeting I had in DC.

There in a White House Conference room, 18 Mayors talked about youth violence in their towns and the challenges they were up against. I had the privilege of speaking first, and what I could not avoid discussing was the number of lives right here in our own city that are impacted by violence every single day. I went over the numbers in detail. But more importantly, I focused on education and the role it plays in that equation. Or in the case of too many of our youth, the lack of education that determines what dreams they will achieve. A lack of education that researchers all over the world will tell you is the common denominator for violence in any city or town. A lack of education that is the bedrock of a life of crime, of drama, of pain, of contagion. A lack of education that lands our children, our would-be doctors, lawyers, coders, and teachers, behind bars instead of on the path towards success. A lack of education that leaves dreams where they began – in their heads, but never within their grasp.  And when I look at the stats – only 33% of our city’s third graders, who are reading at the level they should be – I can’t help but wonder how many of our children even know about Dr. King or the legacy he left for them to fulfill.

This is where I look to you to ensure that Dr. King’s dream continues to unfold. I am asking for your help.

Maybe you’ll help by joining me in my biggest economic development initiative – Turn the Page KC – a program dedicated to the ever-growing number of kids in our urban core who cannot read. A program dedicated to helping our kids out of a life of violence, by putting a book in their hand instead of a gun. Maybe you’ll help by teaching our kids to read, thus allowing them to dream bigger dreams than they ever thought possible.

But maybe you’ll help by realizing it is more than just that.

I am asking you to commit to taking all that you know and sharing it with the youth of our City and the youth in your own lives. I am asking you to actively seek them out and when you find them, read to them, talk to them, ask them what dreams live in their heads. Ask them what it will take for them to get there and how they feel about what’s going on in their lives. Connect with them. Work with them. Appreciate them. Mentor them. Inspire them. Give them someone to look up to. Show them another way. And help them understand the battle that was fought to ensure that they could go to school with their peers. And then ask them to keep going there. Every single day.

Remind them that 50 years ago, there was any number of things holding them back. But 50 years later, there is no limit to the things they can achieve. Give them the tools they need to carry our City and our nation into the future. Help them to write a dream of their own and then lead them down the path to achieving it. I believe what Dr. King had in mind is not far from where we are today. But he would have wanted us to keep going. His dream isn’t fulfilled by putting a black man in the white house. It is fulfilled when any young man or woman has the same opportunity to get there as our President did.

It is fulfilled when our brothers in the streets stop putting each other in the ground and instead find common ground to stand on. It is fulfilled when those of us who have been given opportunity in our lives, reach back and bring someone else along for the ride. His dream is fulfilled when we realize we are all in this together. We have an obligation to one another. And though there are many things that still divide us, at the core, there is still the one thing that unites us all.

Hope.

Every citizen of this City and of this nation has hope. And although it may be buried deep within our souls somewhere, it does exist. I don’t care how dark that corner of your universe is, there is always hope that someday it will get better. And it can get better. We can be living proof of a dream Dr. King envisioned for us 50 years ago.

He believed in hope. He believed in the future. He believed in us. And I believe in the power we all share to see that his dream, and the dreams of every child in this city, come true. My hope is that you’ll join me through the combined belief that the American Dream is alive for each one of us, And 50 years after the March on Washington, there is no better time than now to see it come true for anyone who lays claim to it.

Join me in reaching out to our youth and fulfilling a dream that Dr. King charged us with becoming living proof of. We’ve come this far. And now, we must keep going.

3 thoughts on “Reflecting on Dr. King’s legacy during Black History Month

  1. Dear Mayor James,

    Thank you for this inspiring and authentic reflection. Our congregation, St. Aidan’s Anglican Church, is joining your heartfelt request to reach out and stand with the urban youth of this city. We are beginning with a core of volunteers at Gordon Parks Elementary School, where we, as a young church plant, started meeting the first Sunday of 2014. We sense that we’re strategically placed to begin to make a difference in the lives families who rely on the compassionate vision of the teachers and administration of the school to provide a network of care for their children.

  2. Great message!!! Absolutely, if we each would do our part in reaching our youth, we could help stem the tide of the social ills plaguing our community.

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