On the 57th anniversary of one of the most stirring and influential speeches in history, five Islanders gathered to discuss what the words meant then, and what meaning they have now.
Their conversation considered what inspired the historic address, and how it can be applied to individuals and communities in light of a time of mass protests for racial equality.
Presented by the Shelter Island Library and organized by the town’s Health and Wellness Alliance, the Zoom meeting on Aug. 28 to honor Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech, was a thoughtful and penetrating discussion. It included the participants’ own confrontations with racism and how the meaning of MLK’s words are relevant in 2020.
Hosted by Councilman Jim Colligan and Zoom stage manager/producer Rachel Lucas, and moderated by Shelter Island High School teacher Peter Miedema, the panel included Cliff Clark, Julie Karpeh, Benjamin Dyett, Atherame Lawrence and José Montalvo.
A promise broken
One enlightening part of the teleconference was bringing back significant parts of MLK’s 1963 address at the Lincoln Memorial that have been overshadowed by the soaring rhetoric of his “I Have A Dream” finale.
Emma Martinez, an Island High School student, started the discussion with her reading of a section of the speech that spoke of America’s unfulfilled obligations: “In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir … It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.”
Mr. Dyett, an African-American attorney, businessman and president of the Board of Sylvester Manor, said it was that idea of the promissory note that demands people confront the questions of, “Did we forget to remember? Or did we remember to forget?”
It is the duty of the Manor’s staff and board to keep the history of slavery and indentured workers before the public’s attention, he added.
“There isn’t a finish line” that ends prejudice, Mr. Dyett said. “It’s a never-ending conversation.”
He remembered traveling to the March on Washington when he was a boy with his family in August 1963. His father was physician and Mr. Dyett had grown up in Westchester County in an almost all-white neighborhood. He experienced subtle, and not so subtle prejudice, he said, and also the pressure of being the sole representative for an entire race when he was a boy.
Aterahme Lawrence, a graduate of the Shelter Island High School Class of 2014 and SUNY Fredonia, said she slightly disagreed, that there can be an end to “systemic racism,” but agreed on the idea of promoting an ongoing conversation about race.
Picking up on MLK’s idea of a promissory note that was never acknowledged, Ms. Lawrence said, “It’s not just about police brutality, it’s also about poverty,” and described how when she was young, she and her family “faced poverty and homelessness.” The idea of “insufficient funds” should be “taken literally,” she added, and that the granting of reparations “is crucial to healing the Black community.”
She also felt the pressure of being a lone representative of an entire people when she was growing up on Shelter Island.
Mr. Montalvo, who is originally from the Dominican Republic, said that because of the color of his skin and his ethnicity, coming to Shelter Island had been at times a “difficult transition.” But, he added, one purpose of MLK’s speech had been achieved nearly 60 years after it was given, because on the anniversary, Shelter Islanders had gathered to discuss its meaning and relevance today.
“It’s time for all of us to step up,” Mr. Montalvo said.
Racism is often subtle, but still harmful, said Ms. Karpeh, a white woman married for 40 years to Dr. Marty Karpeh, who is Black. “I never knew how deep racism is,” she said, and how her husband is often immediately judged not by the content of his character, but by the color of his skin, to use one of the most well-known phrases of the speech. People have condescended to her about her husband, saying, “how articulate,” he is, or “how nice.”
Ms. Karpeh said that the speech could be given today — “In Wisconsin” — to address issues that have never gone away.
Mr. Dyett also said how race pigeonholed people, noting the countless times he looked into stunned faces when meeting colleagues in his profession in board rooms, who only knew him from phone conversations.
He said when he drives his Mercedes Benz, he always has his license and registration out in the open so he can give them to police officers immediately who have stopped him for the offense of “Driving while Black. It happens all the time.”
Ms. Karpeh said her husband has been pulled over numerous times, alone or when she was with him. She also recalled that he had once been arrested for serious felonies “for being Black,” on outrageously false charges that were dismissed out of hand within a day.
Mr. Clark, who is white and whose family has been on Shelter Island for hundreds of years, recalled that he heard the speech when he was a student at Harding College in Arkansas. The full meaning didn’t hit home then, he said, although he was struck by MLK’s well-crafted rhetoric, his brilliant use of metaphor, and especially the idea of passing a bad check.
Going to school in the South had been an eye-opener about American racism, Mr. Clark said. While traveling to school for the first time, he was shocked and confused to see signs for segregated public drinking fountains. It was through friends and, in particular a mentor at college, that his eyes were fully opened, Mr. Clark said.
He and his company, South Ferry, always strive for diversity in hiring people of different races and genders, he said.
Ms. Martinez read another section of MLK’s speech that contained phrases employed by President Barack Obama and others as calls to action: “We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”
Mr. Miedema asked the panel about the concept of “gradualism” to achieve the ends MLK spoke about. “What does ‘the urgency of now’ mean now,” he asked.
Ms. Karpeh said gradualism can delay social justice for decades, and always has a human cost. She noted that the law against interracial marriage in America was overturned in 1967, but states such as Alabama and South Carolina didn’t take the ban off their books until decades later. What is needed, she said, was constant pressure, saying that an “outrage” periodically flares with protests rising up to meet the injustice head on, but then action dies down. “Until the next outrage,” she said.
Mr. Clark said that MLK’s cause of nonviolent, civil disobedience must be a hallmark for any movement to achieve justice. People on Shelter Island have to “keep educating, listening, talking.”
He praised the student-led demonstration for the Black Lives Matter movement in the Center in June as a “great start.”
Ms. Lawrence said that “for gradualism to work, it has to be on a daily basis, interacting with neighbors,” and it’s “more than just voting or posting.” The urgency of now is unavoidable, she said, pointing out that when people say things take time, it should be asked, “Four hundred years? Is that enough time?”
Mr. Dyett said that those who castigate civil unrest should remember MLK’s words to the effect that violence and unrest “is the last resort of the unheard.”
Mr. Dyett noted an urgency over voting rights for this coming election, and that it’s imperative that everyone be involved in efforts to achieve equality. Nothing will happen, he said, unless “white people get involved.”
Ms. Lawrence echoed that idea. “Black people can’t end white supremacy,” she said.
Mr. Montalvo called for vigilance. “Don’t give up,” he said. “Keep working. Do the right thing.”
Honesty was a priority, Mr. Clark said, adding that there were times in his life “when I wasn’t listening.”
He added he had been “humbled,” by the truth expressed by Ms. Karpeh in an earlier segment, when she said she hoped for a time when the color of a person’s skin meant as little as the color of their hair.
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