The Issue is Still FreedomPosted in Social Justice, Speeches
Delivered at the AFSCME Banquet. Martin Luther King. Jr. Celebration. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Dearborn Hyatt Regency Hotel, Dearborn, Michigan. February 10, 2007
We gather today to pay tribute to a man who was one of America’s greatest freedom fighters. His legacy of non-violent social change is perhaps one of the greatest stories of the quest for freedom in American history.
It is a freedom emphasizing the importance of “being free. But it is not, in the words of Ivan Karamazov in Dostoevsky’s masterpiece of art, The Brothers Karamazov, “a freedom where everything is permitted. ” It is not a freedom that allows for any and everything thus brooking chaos and destruction, nor is it a freedom that abdicates responsibility and relinquishes all discipline.
It is a freedom rooted in a larger moral vision of a truly moral universe. It is a freedom grounded in a humane vision of equal justice under the law and equal application of the law. It is a freedom that respects the rights of all men and women to be free, which in the words of John Kennedy in his inaugural address is, ”A right not emanating from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God. ” It is a freedom exemplified in each man and woman’s quest for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Dr. King lived and died in pursuit of this cherished ideal. Nothing can be more American than that. The central issue facing America during Martin Luther King’s time was freedom and the primary issue in America today is still freedom and it is this subject that I wish to speak to this evening. Three points I would like make tonight around this theme:
First, in this current climate of terrorism and fear, we must be careful not to relinquish all of our freedoms or throw them all away in the name of national safety and national security.
During the past few years, we have observed a unique and startling trend in our country, which if left unchecked can undermine the higher principles undergirding of our representative democracy. Taking a famous line from Shakespeare’s, Hamlet, “To be or not to be, “ that is the question, and since so much of our uniqueness as a nation has to do with freedom, we might say that “To be or not to be is intimately tied to the right to be free or not to be free.”
Since September 11, 2001, we have witnessed the slow and gradual abbreviation of our basic rights and freedoms in response to terrorism and in the name of national security. The implementation of the Patriot Act, the Military Tribunal Act, which Jacob Hornberger calls, “The most radical and dangerous transformation of the criminal justice system since our nation’s inception; ” the escalation of domestic spying on American citizens, the abuse of prisoners at Abu Gharib and Guantanomo Bay and the general circumvention of the rule of law, are the results of government seeking a free, unbridled hand in eradicating possible terrorists and preventing another 9/11 like disaster.
The issues now become the power of law versus the law of power. Balancing power between the executive, judicial and legislative branches of government is both a hallmark and virtue of our constitutional republic. To prevent the abuse of power between the three branches of government, the legislative branch enacts laws, the executive branch enforces laws and the judicial branch interprets laws. Unfortunately, the pendulum of power has tilted towards the executive branch in recent years and we must be careful not to create a quasi dictatorship in the name of democracy. Power unchecked precipitates corrupting power. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Milton Friedman reminds us that “The great threat to freedom is the concentration of power.”
The question is not whether terrorists should be rooted out and destroyed. The question is not whether the President should have a relatively free hand in enforcing laws. The question is the means by which this can be legitimately done in a nation of laws. If we violate our own laws and negate basic human rights of citizens and non-citizens in an effort to get terrorists, what implications will this have for our basic laws, rights and freedoms in the future? One of the great virtues of our nation is that citizens and non-citizens are entitled to the same due process of law.
Never before has America experienced the attack from outside enemies on its own turf as it did on September 11, 2001 and while recent surveys indicate that many Americans do not mind having some of their freedoms abridged to create more security and safety in our nation, the danger is the potential abuse and misuse of freedoms. In an effort to vouchsafe and protect our basic freedoms, we must be careful not to completely surrender them.
While as a nation we must exercise caution and develop a new watchfulness for enemies real and potential, we must not in an effort to establish greater security within our very own borders deprive ourselves of the very freedoms for which our forebears have so diligently and valiantly fought and have long been the cherished ideals of our nation. There is a fine line between freedom that allows for a security that will protect it and a security that will allow for freedom to be protected.
We stand today at a very unique crossroads as a nation. The mettle of our republic is being tested, the resolve of our nation questioned; the nerve of our nation tried and we must not shrink from the responsibility that we have in securing our nation and uplifting it from the doldrums of doom and despair from the enemies who seek to destroy us.
But it is also in this climate that we must take a long hard look at our history and make sure that we do not in an effort to preserve our freedoms end up destroying them by turning against each other in an attempt to establish a permanent security. Benjamin Franklin once stated: ”They that can give up essential liberty to purchase a temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety….for where liberty dwells there is my country.”
When those planes slammed into the twin towers that bright sunny day in New York everything changed in our nation and world. Things will never the same. We all have a new wariness and a new weariness but we must make certain that we don’t become apathetic and lazy when it comes to our basic rights and freedoms and that we leave no stone unturned in ensuring that government of the people, by the people and for the people does not perish from this earth.
We must be certain that our basic rights and freedoms are never surrendered or relinquished, for these are the great benchmarks our republic. Once we surrender our basic freedoms, as history shows, we may never get them back. Then we will have truly lost our way and may become a nation ruled by tyrants and oligarchs rather than a nation of laws where the people govern.
In an effort to preserve and protect our freedoms, we must careful not to revoke them. In an effort to vouch safe our freedoms we must be careful not to lock them away for safekeeping so that ultimately no one has access to them but those with imperial power.
In celebrating the legacy and spirit of Martin Luther King Jr, we must remember that his central mission was to hold America accountable to its promises of freedom. His primary concern was to help create a society in which African Americans could realize and actualize the same gifts and have the same rights and privileges of their white counterparts. These promises are embodied in those three great documents of freedom: The Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. As a Christian minister Dr. King believed in the moral authority of the Judeo-Christian tradition and would concur in the words of Michael Eric Dyson that the Bible should teach the flag how to wave.
The theme of freedom had such universal value and resonation with the people of America that the Civil Rights movement gave birth to the Women’s Rights, Gay and Lesbian Rights and other Rights movements for social change both nationally and internationally.
The Solidarity Movement in Poland was influenced by the Civil Rights movement in America. Nelson Mandela, Steven Bikko and others recognized the impact the American Civil Rights movements had in the fight against the system of racial Apartheid in South Africa.
Dr. King lived and died for freedom, as did many patriots before and after him and wherever these persons have lived, served and died and whatever color, gender or hue they have been, and whatever methods they have assumed and whatever time period they fervently labored, the issue has always been about basic human freedom.
Virtually in every major conflict within our nation and virtually every conflict in which our nation has been involved the principal concern has been establishing, implementing and maintaining the basic human rights that come with being free. The concern has been the capacity of a free people to remain free or run the risk of losing that freedom to a rising tide of totalitarianism, communism, fascism and repression. To be free or not to be free; that is the question, has been the question and will remain the question as long as America is America.
Our history plays out this important theme repeatedly. The Revolutionary War was about freedom from the British. The Civil War was about the manumission of slaves from their masters and the rights of masters to make a living by maintaining that cruel and peculiar institution. World Wars I and II were fought to preserve democracy and freedom at home and around the globe as the allied powers battled the axis powers and fought to stem the insidious rise of fascism, totalitarianism and Nazism, which sought to deprive free men and women of the right to live as free people. Over 200 million people died in the twentieth century largely due to wars to preserve freedom.
The great sovereignty struggles waged both outside and inside of America have mostly been about freedom, the dignity of man, the right to self-determination and self autonomy; and the struggle against terrorism today is for these very same principles. Shall we allow the terrorists to compel us to shun and discard and destroy the very freedoms that define the essence of our democracy?
Virtually every major skirmish and conflict in America from Woman’s suffrage to the establishment of voting rights for blacks and other minorities to the concerns of sleeping Car Porters to the rights of unions to organize and petition their grievances have all been about holding America to what Dr. King called the promissory note of freedom. It is a note containing caveats for justice and equality for all Americans.
Civil Rights, Human Rights, workers rights movements have been for the right to live as free citizens in our nation and in the world. Whether their names are George Washington, Patrick Henry or Thomas Paine, Charles Gary or A. E. Gary, Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer or Walter Ruether, Arnold Zander, Susan B. Anthony or Elizabeth Cady Stanton; Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman or Medgar Evers, Marian Anderson, A. Philip Randolph or Eleanor Roosevelt, the ultimate concern has been the dignity and freedom of all Americans.
Writer Larry Robinson asks, “Where would we be today without Dorothy Day, Bill Haywood, Caesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta and the thousands of union organizers who fought for and gave us the forty hour work week, an end to child labor, workers health and safety laws, the minimum wage and many other rights we now enjoy and take for granted. These rights were not granted by benevolent corporations or by an altruistic government, but by the perserverance, suffering and death of so many forgotten working men and women. ”
“And when companies, corporations and governments do not give workers the right to organize unions, this is a violation of their basic constitutional right to free assembly. The issue is still freedom.”
“In the history of our nation, the great twilight struggle in preserving American Democracy has been between those forces and agencies that would fight for, sustain and preserve freedom at all costs and those forces that would remove, undermine, give or take freedom away at any price. ”
Whether on the Sands of Iwo Jima or on the soil of Massachusetts, Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia, the great struggle has always been for freedom, justice and the basic rights of humanity and we must never forget this.
The danger today, unlike in previous episodes of this heroic struggle is that in our current climate, we run the risk as a nation of terminating our own freedoms in an effort to create more security and this can be very dangerous.
Second, it is precisely because of our basic rights and freedoms that we have made great advances as a nation and given the world some of the most innovative and creative inventions known to civilization.
Do you actually believe that America could have achieved all that she has without the freedom to imagine, create and innovate? The issue here is not freedom itself, but all of her great offspring; the freedom to strive and progress; the freedom to imagine and create, the freedom to discover, innovate, improvise and revise?
It is in this current climate of fear created by the looming threat of terrorism that we as a nation must remember our greatest and most cherished gift. It is in this emotionally charged atmosphere that we more than ever must remember the great gifts and promises of freedom itself. Freedom is a gift, freedom gives birth to other gifts, and that has made us a unique nation. To give it away or fret it away is to destroy and abolish our greatest gift.
We could not have evolved into one of the greatest nations on earth without freedom. We could not sustain ourselves without it, come this far paying the price in human toil and blood without it.
It is in this ethos that Dr. King would tell us to remember our heritage; remember our past and remember that that past is vitally linked to our future. Dr. King would tell us that more than ever today, we must call upon that vital reserve of vision and strength that nurtures the soul and vitality of a free people. He would exhort us to have moral and physical courage, imagination, creativity, ingenuity, resiliency, compassion, patience and strength.
He would urge us to not cower in fear but call upon something higher in us as one of the most powerful nations on earth and as one of the most gifted nations in history. He would urge us to dig deeply into our vast reservoirs of strength spiritual and possibilities practical. He would tell us that this is not the time to repress our greatest gift or throw it into the trash heap of despair and defeat. He would urge us to rise above and go beyond our greatest dreams and discover new frontiers and conquer new horizons.
We, who gave light to the world, gave auto motion and automation to the world, gave the world an assembly line and mass production and refrigeration and the telephone and the microchip and fiber optics and heart transplants and cures for polio and remedies for other maladies. We, who gave the world blood plasma and the Marshall plan, Jazz (American Classical Music), the Blues, the Spirituals, Gospel music and the Western Cowboy Movie. We who gave the world Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner, Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison and Jim Morrison, Charlie Parker, Maceo Parker and Miles Davis, Jack Johnson and John Johnson, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, Don King, B.B. King and M. L.King Jr and on and on and on?
Who has been at the forefront for the advancements of humanity and civilization because of freedom? Who has been on the cutting edge of new technological and scientific discoveries because of freedom, and now some want to create not an open society but a closed society that does not believe in the gospel of science, does not cherish the ideals of freedom that originally spurred our creativity, prodded our imagination and given us greatness? Now we want to dumb down in order to dumb out where free striding knowledge in a free thinking society are now held hostage to mind dumbing stupification and mind numbing religion of Orwellian group think where dissent is rejected, punished and labeled unpatriotic? When everybody is thinking alike someone is not thinking. Could we have come this far as a nation, done all that we have done as a nation, faced all we have faced as a nation without freedom? And now there are some who would take it all away; throw it all away; give it away to people who would love nothing more than to trample it afoot and heap misery upon us. We cannot have this.
Then there are those who believe that as a free and powerful nation who has virtually conquered the world that such freedom gives us unfettered license to go where we want and do what we want to whomever we want in prideful of arrogance and arrogant pride.
We must not give our freedom away and not allow it to be taken away either and if we export it to another country we must make sure that we do not abolish it in our own country.
We must remember that by creating a culture of freedom we have been able to thrive and grow rapidly and greatly as a nation. If we allow others to take it all away, it only stunts our growth and retards our possibilities.
What we need is humility and a new creative resourcefulness, the capacity to call on and use our creative genius to receive, understand and win the world; the dexterity to stand tall and firm against the world but to not annhilate the world; the ingenuity to create in the world, not out of greed, but out of necessity; the ability to enhance the world because our creative genius wins friends and destroys strongholds of tyranny, hatred and fascism. One writer said that the great genius of American Democracy has been its capacity to assimilate its opposition.
What we need is a new sensibility; a new creativity; a new ingenuity; a new spirituality not driven by the lust of power but the power of trust; minds, hearts, spirits and souls that see new frontiers beyond the horizons of space, beyond the prisms of race, and give of themselves infinitely beyond the bounds of grace.
What we need is not a new fear or a new terror or a new horror or a new defensiveness cloaked and shrouded in the language of desperation and trepidation, and seeks to destroy and conquer everything that we hold dear. What we need is a new mind; a new heart; a new feeling; a new spirit that is truly the true soul of a new America. It is an America that will ever work for right, truth and justice for all Americans as did Martin Luther King, Jr.
Sadly, there are people who in their effort to establish a new world order no longer believe in the virtues of freedom for the indigent masses. These men and women with money and power seem to have run out of intellectual, spiritual and material resources to imagine newer and greater possibilities in that world. Their greed and power have blinded them to the cause of the common man and woman; desensitized them to the pangs of hungry men, women and children; anesthetized them to the needs of the common laborer who has sweated and bled to build America. Their reach is now a global reach; their allegiance is to a world community; they no longer care about the average American because they now have in their sights the conquest of the world. Their aim is to make more and more money and possess more and more power. These same people who comprise ten percent of the world’s population own or control 80 percent of the world’s resources.
With all the money, ingenuity and creativity, America’s status in the world has waned; the genius of America has abated because the real and great gift of America is how it has used its common people to promote and develop a common wealth through freedom; a freedom that is valued at home as well as around the world. People come to America because of it and do not want to leave America because of it.
Even during the Guilded Age of America, philanthropists and men of great wealth whose greed and avarice ran rough shod over the common man were challenged to give something back to the country from which they made their vast wealth. Theodore Roosevelt’s Square Deal challenged to the right of Corporations to monopolize and mortgage the financial future of America. While they tried to make all they could while they could, freedom was still a cherished ideal. Vanderbilt, Dupont, Carnegie, Morgan, Rockefeller and others were scorned but knew that in order to grow and prosper they had to give something back to the nation that made them wealthy men. Organized Unions were at the forefront of this struggle and many paid the price in blood. Many company owners finally realized that they had a moral obligation to make society better; to lift the lives of those common men and women who helped make them wealthy.
It is from the labors of the common men and women that these icons of wealth and power garnered their fortunes and gave some of their fortunes away to Science, industry and the arts as the nation blossomed and benefited from their prosperity. Fortunes were made but something was given back and it was due to the labors of unions who fought for equality, dignity and a fair wage that the American worker enjoyed even greater protection and prosperity. We must not forget that freedom as our greatest gift has given birth to our greatness as a nation.
Third and finally, we must continue our legacy of freedom and continue to fight for it if America’s future is to be even greater.
Now is not the time to give up in hopeless and despair. Martin Luther King reminds us that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere and if this nation is to grow and prosper materially, morally and spiritually, it must cherish that freedom, work to ensure that every man, woman and child can have it and become permanent beneficiaries of it.
In looking at your own history, AFCSME has been at the forefront for worker freedom, equality, dignity and justice. Even in 1947 when the Taft Hartley Act restricted labor unions in private industry, AFSCME continued to grow despite opposition. AFSCME, to its great credit has always been at the forefront of workers rights and the right to collective bargaining. This union has epitomized the great ideals of American freedom and demanded that workers receive dignity and respect from their employers.
A reading of your history says that in the mid 1960’s American society as a whole was shedding its inhibitions and leaders of AFSCME pressed the demand for collective bargaining rights for public employees. In city after city, AFSCME members took action to gain recognition of their union. Responding to the union’s insistent call for fair and equal treatment for public employees, several states passed general collective bargaining laws.
During the 1960’s AFSCME’s struggle became linked to the Civil Rights Struggle. This alliance culminated in Memphis Tennessee in 1968 when black sanitation workers struck for union recognition and against the city’s discriminatory practices. Dr. King came to Memphis to support this strike. Only after Dr. King’s assassination did the city agree to recognize the workers union AFSCME local 1733. Dr. King’s and AFCSME’s struggle coincided as they both believed in the freedom of man and worked diligently to bring it to reality.
It was about freedom then. It is about freedom now and it will be about freedom in the future. We must never take it for granted and we must never stop struggling for it, for more is at stake than just freedom. We must not give it away. We must not throw it away however fearful or fretful we become; however big and formidable the enemy. By keeping freedom, we keep America.
It is about the freedom to live, think, imagine and create. The freedom to live freely and breathe clean air; the freedom to raise our children in decent neighborhoods and give them a good education; the freedom to make money and share wealth and build community. It is the freedom to build a better society by bringing justice, hope and equality to all people including workers. It is the freedom to work and the freedom to organize unions for workers. It is the freedom to give the common man and common woman a sense of dignity and honor and worth for the fruits of their labors. It is the freedom to have a life and make a living; the freedom for every man, woman and child to get a fair shake and a decent wage and to live healthfully and hopefully without worry or want.
The issue my friends is still freedom. Freedom of mind and freedom of heart, freedom of the American spirit to soar like eagles from purple mountains majesties across the fruited plain; freedom to see others who are different and respect their persons; a freedom to know that we are all Americans and that we could not have come this far without freedom.
As we continue the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., let us remember that he was one warrior in a long line of freedom fighters who believed that we must remain true to our constitutional promises and principles; that each man, woman and child is affected when others are not free. Until all are free, the one is not free. One is not free until all are free.
This is the great hallmark of our democracy, the great gift of America and the great overarching purpose for which we as a people have been called to live, serve strive. Let us march on until we all have it. Let us live on until we all share it and let us fight on so that we all never, ever, lose it.
If the issue is still freedom, let freedom ring. Let it ring in every heart and every home, on every hill and every hamlet, in every city, every village, every town and every county, every place and every space. Let it ring in every mind and every soul of every American, this great gift that we have. Let it ring and ring and ring until each man, woman and child in America can boldly and proudly exclaim, “Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty we are free at last. ”
“In the words of Abraham Lincoln, “If we do right, God will be with us and if God is with us, we cannot fail.
Thank you and God bless you all.
@Copyright 2007. Carlyle Fielding Stewart, III. All Rights Reserved.