Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was celebrated once again with a march from Jefferson Street MBC to the Gentry Center on the campus of Tennessee State University. Following a list of items on the program that consisted of prayer; a welcome; the occasion; music from Nate Hicks, featuring Nate James—TSU President Glenda Glover delivered greetings. Rep. Jim Cooper mentioned how he has attended each year, and it was the first time that a sitting governor had shown up to participate.
The first speaking engagement for Gov. Bill Lee as governor was the MLK Convocation. Nashville Mayor David Briley also gave a warm greeting. All officials mentioned their admiration for history and the part that Martin Luther King, Jr. played, while some speakers even shared an MLK quote, e.g.: “Everybody can be great ‘cause anybody can serve”; “I am thankful for the gathering…we honor the dream.”
The program continued with a presentation of gifts and special recognition presented by Tennessee state Rep. Harold Love, IMF Lifetime Achievement Award for Dr. Forrest Harris, president of American Baptist College.
While all speakers were interesting, the hour came to hear long-awaited words from Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, president and senior lecturer of Repairers of the Breach.
Dr. Barber came with a mission in mind. He immediately let everyone know “I didn’t come to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I came to recruit.” He made note that martyrs, such as Dr. King, are not meant to be celebrated but to be joined. His intent was not just to inspire others to join the movement, but to recruit workers and doers for the mission. He needed people that would not just preach, but also give life to preached words!
Barber spoke with conviction, passion, truth, urgency and a call to action. He was inspired by a song by John Legend entitled ‘You Can’t Just Preach.’ He spoke from scriptures that talked about Jesus’ mission as a call to action from the Spirit of the Lord.
“I am speaking from a moral perspective, not Democrat or Republic,” Barber said. “I am registered as an Independent.”
His message spoke of service to the poor and a conviction that everyone needs to be treated equally. Barber compared Jesus’ preaching to M.L. King’s preaching, saying such an alignment is a call to us from God.
“On the very next year on the very next day that King was supposed to preach on Sunday,” Barber said, “I gotta tell the truth. MLK dared to challenge racism, poverty and militarism—those evils that challenge America. With the Poor People’s campaign many people walked away from him.
“They came to his funeral. Somehow we love the tombs of the prophets, but we do not love the prophet when they are alive.”
Barber noted that before King died and gave the ‘I Have a Dream’ sermon, he first said: “America is sick,” the Sunday before. “America must be born again.”
“The sermon he was going to preach the next Sunday if he had lived,” Barber said, “indicated ‘America is going to hell’ if it doesn’t deal with the issue of racism and poverty and militarism. To preach in the tradition of MLK is to agitate and yes, it is to separate from injustice. And it is not just some cute love that says, ‘everybody loves everybody.’ It is the kind of love that dares to tell the truth about injustice. And if you’re not gonna deal with that part of Dr. King, then leave him alone!
“To preach is to take words and put flesh on them. Preaching must beget a living contradiction. The preached word must put on flesh and suit up for struggle. If it doesn’t, it’s not preaching. It’s just pretending.
“When we come together to celebrate Dr. King, it is not enough and say, ‘We love Dr. King.’ Politicians can’t say they love Dr. King and how he stood for love and unity. But then you deny and refuse to support his agenda.” Barber turned to Gov. Lee: “Right governor?” He continued: “Dr. King would not have been for a wall! Who of you would say, ‘Mr. Trump we don’t need a wall to separate people. We need to be spending money to get everybody healthcare!’ If you can’t stand up for them, you can’t say you love Dr. King!”
It appeared that everyone previously seated was now standing with uproarious applause! From that point, Dr. Barber brought the house down as he shared facts and statistics about following his invitation for “everyone in the building stand if you agree that America doesn’t need a wall. We need healthcare for the poor!” As Rev. Dr. Barber scanned the stage, the elected officials, the clergy section and the entire auditorium stood, but Gov. Bill Lee remained seated!
He said to the preachers: “If you can ask people to tithe, but you can’t fight for these students—if you are not fighting for people to have a living wage, you are lying. This legacy is bigger than Dr. King!”
He asked who the poor, the blind, the oppressed, the prisoners and the unaccepted are. He addressed the 46% of Tennesseans who are poor and low-income. He spoke about poor people, voter fraud, universal healthcare, being a Christian, oppression laws, immigrants from the South who are “trying to come back home,” as he reminded the audience: “Texas was Mexico, New Mexico was Mexico. Texas pulled out when Mexico decided they would no longer have slavery. They ain’t crossing the border. The border crossed them!”
When asking the Rep. Cooper and Gov. Lee their last names, he pointed out that their names, just as his, ‘Barber,’ are not Navajo.
“How can a whole bunch of folks who are immigrants themselves be against immigrants?” Removing his coat and tossing it to the floor, he noted that he is “too old to play.”
“Dr. King wanted us to get away from left and right and do what’s morally right! This country can’t survive with 43% of the people living in poverty. We have to put down partisanship and do what’s right.”
He said that Obama was not a total solution, and that Trump is not the total problem. He is a “symptom of a deep moral imbalance.” Dr. Barber said he wants the people to put down partisanship and do what’s right.
“Some things are not about left v. right, liberal v. conservative. Its just about right v. wrong,” he said. “Yes these are tough times. The mean and the greedy are cocky on every side. Never before in recent history have we seen so much money being spent in resistance to the cause of equality—money being spent to go backwards. But faith stands up to false Pharaoh and the false prophets. Faith takes on the giants.”
As he began to close, Barber reflected on his travels. “People, Black and White, are tired of crying. They’re joining the movement to come together to build a movement that are not just words.”
He ended his message by calling students and children to action as recruits to “put some legs on some words!” He encouraged the students to continue to stand up: “Be ‘bout it or leave it alone!”
Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II is the pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, in Goldsboro, North Carolina. He is an author, an advocate, and the architect of the Forward Together Moral Movement that gained national acclaim with its Moral Monday protests at the North Carolina General Assembly in 2013. The movement led a ‘Moral Day of Action’ on September 12, 2016, which was the largest coordinated action on state capitals in U.S. history. Over 80,000 people called on North Carolina’s elected officials to embrace a moral public policy agenda.