One team, one fight: the real heart of the matter

Col. James Lewis: Today is set aside for us to remember and celebrate the life and accomplishments of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But it's also a good time to pause and reflect on where we are today in the ongoing struggle for racial equality and peace among people of all races and ethnicities.

I'm honored to serve as this year's speaker, and I'd like to begin by first reviewing what we know about the man we are here to celebrate. I'll then address what I believe to be the real heart of the matter in the area of equality.

He was born Michael King Jr. Jan 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Ga. He was a Baptist minister and a civil rights activist. His impacts on race relations in this country are nearly immeasurable. His lifetime work and sacrifices led to the end of legalized segregation of African-American citizens.

Among several honors received, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his works and accomplishments in the struggle for civil rights and racial equality. Dr. King's father, the Rev. Michael King, came from a poor sharecropper family. He adopted the name Martin Luther in honor of the German protestant religious leader. He and his wife, Alberta, had three children; one of them Michael King Jr., who later followed his father's lead and adopted the name Martin Luther.

Although they tried their best, the Kings were unable to completely shield their children from the images of racism so prevalent at the time. They would have witnessed disturbing scenes of racial prejudice, and were no doubt exposed to it in a variety of ways. What young Martin witnessed guided many decisions he would make later in his life.

In his junior year at Morehouse College in Atlanta, young Martin began to envision a career in ministry. While working on his theology doctorate at Boston University, he met Coretta Scott, an aspiring singer and musician. They were married in 1953 and had four children. Martin was only 25 when, two years later, he was awarded his PhD. The year was 1955, and later that same year, a 42-year-old seamstress boarded a public bus in Montgomery, Ala., traveling home after a hard day's work. She sat in one of the seats authorized at the time for blacks and refused to give it up when all the designated "white" seats were taken.

Of course, this woman was Rosa Parks, and for her refusal, she was arrested and jailed. Dr. King was selected to lead what came to be known as the Montgomery bus boycott, in which blacks refused to ride the buses until the segregation laws ended -- which did not occur until well over a year later.

This was the first, and clearly not Dr. King's last, engagement in the civil rights struggle. He was involved in countless efforts to end segregation and achieve racial equality in all areas of life - although not without personal consequence. He was arrested 30 times for his participation in these activities.

His powerful words moved an entire generation, and gave black and poor people a new sense of dignity and worth. The movements and marches he led brought significant changes to life in America, and he inspired countless men and women of all races, in our nation and in many nations abroad.

In 1968, Dr. King traveled to Memphis, Tenn., to help sanitation workers protesting against low wages and intolerable working conditions. It was here, on April 4, 1968, that he was cut down by an assassin's bullet.

I was born in 1964, four years before Dr. King's death. My recollections of him from my childhood are understandably vague. But several events of 1964 would later have deep impacts on my life.

For example, 1964 is the year plans for construction of the New York World Trade Center were announced. It's the year the Philips Company began experimenting with color TV. The 24th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified that year, barring poll taxes in federal elections. Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life in prison in South Africa. The Supreme Court ruled that closing schools to avoid desegregation was unconstitutional. In 1964, three civil rights workers registering blacks to vote in Mississippi were murdered. It's also the year that race riots over desegregation erupted in cities all across the U.S. And finally, Dr. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.

But there was also another event which occurred in 1964. This was an event which had profound impact on me and on most of us in this room today.

It was the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which passed only after an 83-day senate filibuster. The act that President Johnson signed into law banned major forms of discrimination against racial, ethnic and religious minorities and women.

This law was passed after long, hard battles fought by Americans of all races. Those involved in the battles were themselves often victims of violence which essentially amounted to domestic terrorism. Many of our parents, in effect, went to war to fight against this terror. In so doing, they endured all sorts of harassment, and were threatened, beaten, arrested without cause, and even killed. And yet, in the face of all of this and more, many summoned the courage to continue on. They continued to hope; to have faith that we would someday overcome.

In fact, the anthem of the civil rights struggle was "we shall overcome." In the 1960s, it was clear what needed overcoming. But we must understand what obstacles we face today. We must also understand that laws help, but laws in and of themselves are not always the only, or even the most effective, solutions to the challenges our nation must yet overcome.

Today, we all recognize the law's significance. But we also recognize that, while you can legislate people's actions, no law on earth can control the heart. And we also all know that, where there is a will, there is a way. Laws alone are no more effective against a determination to break them than locks are effective against people determined to break into a home. Dr. King understood this, and he devoted his life to challenging economic injustice and the vast racial and economic divide that existed in our country at the time. Much was accomplished during his lifetime, and much more since his death. We are reminded of how far we've come every time we look at our elected leaders, at our supervisors and coworkers, at our children, or even when we watch collegiate or professional sports. We have come so very far. But for all of our advances in the area of equality, the truth is that Dr. King's work remains unfinished. And the bottom line is that it is up to all of us to finish it.

During last year's 50th anniversary celebration of Dr. King's "I have a dream" speech, much attention was focused on the areas where racial gaps still exist. A Washington Post article highlighted much of this by pointing out that, even as racial barriers have been toppled and the nation has grown wealthier and better educated, the economic disparities separating blacks and whites remain as wide today as they were way back in 1963. Here are just four examples:

-- During the past 50 years, the black unemployment rate has consistently been twice as high as the white rate.

-- In 2011, over 27 percent of black households were in poverty -- nearly triple that for white households.

-- Our schools are more segregated today than they were over 30 years ago, and schools with majority black student populations are not as well funded.

-- In 1960, black men were five times as likely as whites to be incarcerated; as of 2010, they were six times as likely.

And so, we can and should address inequities under the law. We should address issues within the justice system like racial profiling and disparate treatment in our courts. We should address our immigration policies, and so on. But we must not neglect also addressing what I believe has always been the primary challenge to our nation's continued growth and prosperity, and what threatens our ability to reach our full potential and to more fully realize the great promise for all of our citizens.

I submit that what we must today overcome is ourselves. We are our greatest obstacles to racial equality and peace, and the major battleground is now being waged within our own hearts. What lies there are our fears, our prejudices and our comfort zones. To overcome these, we must first and foremost acknowledge that the dream of racial equality is really more than just a dream. We have to believe that it can be a reality. And if so, why not in our lifetime? Why can't we be the agents of change to make it happen?

In 1964, we had to overcome fear and hate. In 2014, we must also overcome apathy and hypocrisy. Now is the time to demand that all of us are treated and judged in accordance with the content of our character, and not on the color of our skin.

I am a United States Soldier, and I am also a lawyer by training and profession. But even understanding the power of force and the power of laws, I believe that our focus can't always be just on laws, or on trying to force behaviors.

Dr. King was a Christian minister. In his fight for civil rights and against racial discrimination, his primary focus was on the heart. Right up to his death, he preached and demonstrated nonviolence and reconciliation. There's no reason that we cannot do likewise. We can certainly all recall times when we've been treated unfairly, been abused and suffered at the hands of others. But how many of us can honestly say that we've suffered so much that we're justified in completely abandoning hope in ourselves and in our fellow countrymen?

I recognize that there are many perspectives on this subject. My own background and experiences informs my perspectives, and I'll share some of these with you so that you can understand a bit more where I'm coming from here:

I spent four years of my life during the 1970s, from around the age of 8, in an abusive and neglectful foster home, and I was homeless by age 13. Like many other black boys in my day, I was told that I'd never graduate from the sixth grade, let alone from high school, college, law school and beyond. I am apparently supposed to be either long dead or incarcerated, like a number of my relatives and childhood friends. I have eaten out of garbage cans to survive. I have slept in public libraries by day in order to better protect myself at night. Like some of you, my color and status has, at times, resulted in me being ignored and marginalized by some and altogether shunned by others. I've been watched like a hawk the moment I've entered stores. But under the law, I was never attacked by police dogs, never beaten by the fists or batons of police and others determined to keep me in "my place." I was never unjustly jailed, as was the late Nelson Mandela, who remained so imprisoned for 27 years. Folks like him, like Dr. King, like some of our parents and grandparents, did suffer in such ways. But they were still able to summon the will to hope.

And so, I hope. Of course, I remember the negative experiences of racism. But I also remember being encouraged, fed, sheltered and prayed for by people of all races. And I choose to focus on the positive people, events and opportunities. I recognize that my country our country, the United States of America, is barely a generation removed from many who fought -- on both sides, both for and against desegregation -- during the height of our civil rights struggles. Some of these people could not envision, let alone embrace, how far we could go as a unified people. But others of this generation had and still have this vision.

In his famous speech on overcoming, Dr. King identified a faith which mankind can possess and with which we can overcome the obstacles to peace. He concluded his speech by highlighting the power of this faith.

He believed that the faith that we will overcome the obstacles to peace can strengthen every one of us to shut down the negative voices of hopelessness, no matter how bleak things appear. That the faith that we will overcome can shine a bright, all-penetrating light of hope into even the most hopeless among us. Yes, many of us are just tired. Tired and wary of one another and fearful that, once again, "they" won't do what's right. That "they" will cross the line. Tired and weary of struggling against what sometimes seems to be an ever-surging tide of disappointment and despair.

But this weariness has a cure. And that cure is hope. Real hope. Not just hope that one man or one woman can make a difference in our lives. It is hope in us as a people in a nation under God. That as such a people, we can and will think outside of ourselves and make a real difference for our nation.

And yes. Hope fades, but it can eternally spring back if we permit it to do so. Like Dr. King, we must also choose to have faith, and we must choose to hope. And it is with this hope that our better natures can prevail. By our collective decisions to first overcome ourselves, the words of Dr. King can be more fully realized, and we, as a people will get there. We, as one people, black and white, red and yellow, brown and every hue in between, will overcome. Overcome to free ourselves from the last and greatly weakened bonds of racism, knowing that this will finally enable all of us to one day stand -- hand in hand -- and pronounce that we are truly free at last.

Yes, there are disappointments. Every day we can see such disappointments played out either in our own lives or on television or across the blogosphere. But there are also signs, all around us, that we are closer than ever to realizing Dr. King's dream of one America. There is real reason to hope. So, if ever there was a time, a cause, a reason to stand our ground, this is it.

The key to America realizing its promise lies within us; within our hearts. We change our hearts and we change our nation. Just like the slogan: "one team, one fight." It means that everyone works together to accomplish a common goal. Everyone is part of the team and has a specific role to play; everyone's unique strengths and perspectives are respected and welcomed at the table for the good of the whole. We pull together. And when all hell breaks loose and we're called upon to do so, we fight together. But we leave no one out -- we leave no one behind. No one is abandoned to the margins of society. I have faith that America can realize its promise to every American.

In 1968, Dr. King shared with us words which best highlights the significance of this faith: with our faith, we can overcome despair, and we can all be a part of making this one America. Not a black America, a white America, a brown America, and so on. It can happen, and we can all work to make it so.

In conclusion, let's all recognize that the beautiful tapestry of our nation is woven together with a multitude of rich and wonderfully unique threads that are its people. We can only begin to fully appreciate its richness by working to learn about and truly respecting one another. Much more than any other nation, we are tremendously blessed by the abundance of diversity that we enjoy. My hope -- my prayer is that more of us will begin to truly recognize our diversity as a strength and as a blessing, and that we will, tomorrow, more than yesterday, act accordingly.

We must have the faith that this can be. Because by believing that it can be, it will be. We can make it so. And that's the true heart of the matter.

May God bless you all, and may God richly bless the United States of America.

Editor's note: Colonel Lewis is the chief counsel for the U.S. Army Mission and Installation Contracting Command at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, Texas. Remarks were presented at the JBSA-Fort Sam Houston Martin Luther King Jr. observance.

Page last updated Thu January 30th, 2014 at 00:00