Fifty Years After Martin: Does the Arc of Our Moral Universe Bend Toward Justice?
Remarks of Representative Craig V. Hickman for the 2018 Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast Celebration, University of Maine
Monday, January 15, 2018
President Hunter, Vice President Dana, Provost Hecker, President Alpert, officers and members of the Board of the Greater Bangor Area NAACP, the University of Maine Office of Multicultural Student Life, Mr. Guzman and members of the planning committee, the chefs and food service staff who prepared and delivered our nourishment, honored guests and colleagues, ladies and gentlemen, I need not pause to say how very humbled and honored I am to have the privilege of being here this morning, and of being a part of this very meaningful and significant observance, and I want to express my profound and sincere gratitude to your distinguished President for extending the invitation and giving me the opportunity to share these moments of fellowship with you. It is always a rich and rewarding experience to take a break from the day-to-day demands of farming and public service to celebrate life with fellow committed warriors in the struggle; with people of good will from all over Maine and other parts of the country assembled here today to reflect on the state of our society nearly fifty years after the assassination of the great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Move with me as we take a journey through snapshots back and forth in time to examine the question of the hour: Does the arc of our moral universe bend toward justice?
The year is 1993. Thirty years after the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. I am just outside Boston, Massachusetts, on a warm and humid summer evening preparing for the coming national poetry slam competition. My recollection of the experience poured out of me as a poem shortly thereafter.
Serenely sauntering into the Worcester Art Museum to expose a predominantly white, suburban audience to the intricacies of inner-city poetry, toting a big black bag, inconspicuously clad in everyday attire, I, nonetheless, was singled out by the security officer, rapidly approaching from behind the safety of his desk, as if to interrupt some impending disaster on his desperate journey toward me.
“Hey you! What’s the bag for?”
The air around me sputtered in search of retort, while my tongue lay hostage
against a confused palette.
As the approaching crowd began to smell the progression of fear, to caution, to his Robin-Hood rush to save a museum in distress, a thick, curious tension rushed in on a whirlwind, besieging the small crowd, now marveling at what might become an adventure Worcester hadn’t seen in decades.
“I said, what’s the bag for and what you got in it?”
Now, empowered by the women around me, I could stay silent no longer. “It’s my purse. Just like hers, hers, and hers. And what’s in it is none of your business!”
“Well, that’s an awfully big purse!”
“And I’m an awfully big girl, now back off!”
Just what could his mind have conjured?
Perchance he thought I was going to swipe some art museum treasure, more priceless than a Van Gogh original, fold it up in, say, sixteen sections, secure it neatly in my bag, from which I’d just retrieved by compact Uzi, threatening to take out any man who dared stop me (subsequently raping his wife and children), and rush out past the front desk into a welcoming black night.
Or perchance he thought my bag was loaded with several pounds of coke, a hundred vials of crack, and all kinda dope I was eager to deal to a museum crowd desperate for a fix.
Or perchance he thought I was just some loose-cannon vandal, up to no good, armed with several cans of metallic mauve spray paint, or more likely, a big old watermelon, which I’d smash on the floor, scooping out large chunks to smear across the designs displayed on the walls of his big white castle on the hill, leaving behind my own art, my mark, a trail of little black seeds following me out the back door.
As I moved past this suspecting man, the strap of the bag biting into my shoulder, its contents pulling me down a bit closer to the earth I walk on, I realized the bag I carry around daily is weighted with memories, wishes, dreams and stories yet untold; is weighted with city streets, country roads, highways and rivers to places yet unseen; is weighted with groans, laughter, cries and screams yet unheard.
And deep down, somewhere near the bottom of that big black bag, my purse, there’s a neighborhood, a small town, a city, a country, a world, where no person carries the fear to dare ask what’s inside it.
That is my dream, if you will. We are all familiar with Dr. King’s dream. But in that same speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, King spent more time talking about revolution than talking about his dream. Listen here:
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. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 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. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.
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 rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.
It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. 1963 is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.
Does the arc of our moral universe bend toward justice?
The year is 2005. I have just penned the final chapters of the second part of my adoption memoir entitled Fumbling Toward Divinity: The Adoption Scriptures.
The Gospel According to Hazelle
And it came to pass in those days that Hitler died in his Berlin bunker. One week later, during the second week of May nineteen hundred and forty six, Nazi Germany surrendered unconditionally and the war in Europe ended.
In the first weeks of August, the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki and Hiroshima and the Soviet Union declared war on Japan and invaded Manchuria. On the fourteenth day of August, Japan announced its surrender—so long as it could keep its emperor—and World War II, a most devastating war in terms of material destruction, global scale, and lives lost, ended.
Hazelle Hickman returned from the Philippines, where he had been stationed since nineteen hundred and thirty nine, and found that the country he’d left behind wasn’t too kind to Negro servicemen returning from war.
Hazelle came back through California with a few good men who trained at Tuskegee with him in nineteen hundred and thirty nine. After hanging out in the Arizona desert, he returned to Tennessee, to the city of Beale Street and barbeque, basement slow dances and jazz, three years before Elvis moved in from Tupelo, Mississippi.
Still, Hazelle couldn’t find work. And so it was on the fifteenth day of January in nineteen hundred and forty six that he went up from Memphis, Tennessee, to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on a Greyhound bus.
“Mighty nice day for a bus ride,” said Hazelle looking up at the driver from the curb. “What’s your name, sir?”
“Frankie,” the driver responded.
“My name is Hazelle, but you can call me Mister Charlie.” His tone was respectful with a hint of sarcasm. Hazelle tipped his hat to Frankie, flashed his gold tooth and moved to the back of the bus.
And so he went up on a Greyhound to the beer capital of America where his one-and-only brother Willie Lee said it was easier for a Negro man to find work.
Hazelle the second son was born by a midwife to Lee and Emma Ball Hickman in Inverness, Mississippi, on February fourteenth, nineteen hundred and twenty.
Yes, he had a brother, but Hazelle was jazz’s fraternal twin. He may not have been born in New Orleans, but Hazelle and jazz grew up together in the nineteen twenties, matured in the thirties, and took to the world in the forties. Hazelle claimed to have met Bessie Smith, heard Louis Armstrong play live, and auditioned for one of Billie Holiday’s back-up singers in Harlem—all before entering the service at the age of eighteen.
And so it was that Hazelle entered the Army Air Force and concerned himself with the taking off and landing of airplanes. During the Second World War, he fixed the planes the Tuskegee Airmen piloted and became a plotter. When he got to Milwaukee, Hazelle pursued his dream to work at a civilian airport.
Dressed up sharp, Army Air Force papers in hand, Hazelle took the long trolley ride from Sixth and Vine streets, where he lived with his brother, through the south side to General Mitchell Field, Milwaukee’s municipal airport.
He had called ahead for the interview and over the phone, the hiring manager thought that Hazelle’s military plotting experience made him a very good candidate for the job of air traffic controller.
“Hazelle Hickman here to see Mister Black about the plotter job.”
The eyes of the bifocaled receptionist with the fire-engine pompadour and pale, freckled skin scanned his tweed pants, his matching jacket, his rust and brown tie with the gold slanted stripes, his silver hair, and his colored skin and replied, “You can have a seat. He’ll be right with you.”
Hazelle did what he was told, as he had for at least the last six years. Outside the window, he could see the two-engine prop planes rising and landing, rising and landing. Even though an emergency crash landing he’d endured during the war rendered him unwilling and unable to ever get inside those winged steel vessels again, airplanes would always deserve his wonder with their miraculous ability to defy the maw of gravity and take flight.
More than a dozen planes had come and gone, come and gone while Hazelle waited patiently for Mister Black to be right with him. Finally, the pale-skinned woman emerged from behind a windowed door on the other side of the waiting area.
“I’m so sorry that you’ve waited so long and that no one was able to call you before you came all this way. I’m so sorry, really I am. I wish I was able to help you, but the position was filled just today.” Her face flushed red as her mountain of hair. “You know what? Maybe I can help,” she continued, raising the pitch of her voice as though she’d made a remarkable discovery. “Consider this your lucky day. If you check downstairs in personnel, I know for a fact that there are several openings for second- and third-shift janitors.”
“Thank you, ma’am. You tell Mister Black there that I sure hope God blesses him.” He tipped his hat as he walked out the door. “You have yourself a real nice afternoon, now, ya hear?”
And so Hazelle became an interior decorator, a waiter, a cook, a chef, a house painter, and even pondered a career as a nightclub singer and recording artist—oh, how that tenor voice could croon!—before he began his thirty-plus year tenure in office services at the Pabst Blue Ribbon Company.
But before he met Pabst, he met the woman with whom he’d spend the rest of his life.
“I met her almost as soon as I got to Milwaukee. It was forty six and I couldna been here for more than a month. I went to a USO dance at the Pfister Hotel. They had these events for veterans every so often. They were social gatherings where all the beautiful young ladies might come out and give us handsome gentlemen a bit of their time and attention. It was one of the few events back in the day where black and white folk could mingle. They even had a big band. Live. You better believe couples were cuttin a rug, jitterbuggin all over that dance floor.
“I hadn’t yet picked out any beauties to test my toe and get my heart a-jumpin. Then my buddy, Smitty, stopped in the middle of our conversation and raised his eyebrows. He motioned for me to turn and look at the little bit of heaven standin just behind me with a smile on her face bright as a Mississippi mornin. I walked right over to her.
“‘Well, hello sunshine,’ I kinda half sung in my best Nat King Cole impersonation. If a colored girl could blush, her face woulda glowed hot as the Arizona desert.
“I reached for her hand. ‘Before you try kissing it,’ she said, pulling her hand gently away from the path to my lips, ‘why don’t you take me on the dance floor and introduce yourself properly.’
“How can a man with a heartbeat resist that? They say it only happens in fairy tales. At the first sight of her, the very first sight, I knew it was love. So I guess you could say our fairy tale started on the dance floor that very night.”
“I don’t know what Hazelle is talking about. You’d be better off listening to a fool. Pay him no never mind, you hear what I say to you? He’s always talking and don’t know what he’s even talkin bout. I did not ask him to dance. I did no such thing, I say to you. No such thing. I was sitting with my girlfriends on this long wooden bench, and your father came over and said something to me, but I wasn’t studying him one bit.
“But he wouldn’t leave me alone. Yeah, he was handsome and all, dressed up nice and sharp—think he was wearing a navy-blue suit—but I wasn’t really trying to be bothered. I only went because my girlfriend, Mattie, asked me to go with her. You know, she didn’t want to be alone.
“But he persisted and persisted, I say to you, and he just wouldn’t give up. Finally, we danced.
“Yeah, your father’s a good dancer. Real good. He danced me right into marrying him.”
Those were snapshots of my parents who, in the late 1960s, adopted my sister and me into their home and raised us as their very own. When my father departed this world on March 14, 2007, one month to the day after he turned 87, my parents had been married for 61 years. They taught us about discipline, respect, honor, dignity, about how to rise up after being knocked down, how to dream great dreams, how to love, and how to live. And they taught us about building community through generosity.
My father always wanted me to be somebody when I grew up. He encouraged me to strive for leagues of Ivy, traveling with me on that long Amtrak ride to Harvard to drop me off in the new world of New England. And even though I received a degree in government, I never thought I’d use it. Until I realized that economic justice for small farmers in Maine was challenged by food and agricultural policy that made it too difficult to earn an honest living off a relatively small parcel of land. And so I ran for office to try to change that. I ran a campaign that tried to unite my beloved community around the power of food to change lives.
As author Dorothy Allison wrote, “Hunger makes you restless. You dream about food - not just any food, but perfect food, the best food, magical meals, famous and awe-inspiring, the one piece of meat, the exact taste of buttery corn, tomatoes so ripe they split and sweeten the air, beans so crisp they snap between the teeth, gravy like mother's milk singing to your bloodstream.”
The year is 2011. The month is October. I am standing before an assembly of students at Maranacook Community School in Readfield, Maine.
Food is Life
I want to thank Pat Stanton, dean of students, for inviting me to speak for your Make A Difference general assembly today. I’m so tired, my legs can hardly hold me up, but here I am. It’s hard to turn down an opportunity to speak to young people who inspire with their commitment and desire to feed people. I'm honored to be here.
A wise man once said, “There’s a hunger beyond food that’s expressed in food, and that’s why feeding is always a kind of miracle.”
There’s a hunger beyond food that’s expressed in food, and that’s why feeding is always a kind of miracle.
Back when I was a kid in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, our family struggled to make ends meet. My father worked the first shift at Pabst Blue Ribbon Company in the mail room. A World War II veteran with little education, he was basically the company mailman. My mother held a string of part-time jobs to help put food on the table for their two children. As hard as they both worked, and they worked hard, we needed food stamps in order to survive. Still, my parents made clear in both word and deed that no matter how little we had, someone else had less and we needed to help them however we could.
I’ll never forget the day. I was about three or four years old when a young girl who smelled of dried urine knocked on our door. My father was at work, my sister at school. My mother let the girl in and escorted her to the bathroom where she drew a bath for the girl, who couldn’t have been more than 12 years old. After bathing her, my mother gave her a blouse and a pair of pants and sat her down at the kitchen table for a steaming bowl of Cream of Wheat, bacon and toast. I couldn’t believe how fast the girl devoured it all. It was an image that stuck with me, like good preaching. She ate another bowl of cereal and then my mother let her take a nap on the couch. Later, when it was time for her to leave, my mother handed the girl a brown paper bag with a change of clothes and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich inside.
I couldn’t count how many girls came knocking on our door over the next months, but they came nonetheless. My mother cared for each of them in almost the exact same way, like ritual. Our home was a stop on an underground railroad for throwaway girls.
It’s no surprise, then, that I would turn my current home into place where anyone, no matter their need, can come at any time, no questions asked, and receive food.
If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes an entire community to feed an entire community.
Food is life.
When I first made the community aware a year ago that free food was available at the farm 24-7, I heard all sorts of caveats and concerns. “What if someone takes all the fresh food from your farm stand and goes out and sells it?” Where is the love in that question? “Then I guess they need the money to make their rent or pay their mortgage,” I replied. “How can you be so sure that the people who take it really need it if you don’t ask any questions?” You can’t.
But so what.
Last Wednesday, during preparations for the Hot Meal To-Go at Annabessacook Farm that the Winthrop Hot Meal Kitchen provides each Wednesday until we can find a permanent home to provide food and fellowship for people each weekday, a woman called to ask if we still had half a bushel of tomatoes to sell. Her voice sounded vaguely familiar, but I didn’t recognize whose it was. I told her we did and asked her what she wanted them for. “Canning,” she said. “Then we have some left to sell,” I replied. It’s late in the year and tomatoes have pretty much gone by, but we were lucky enough in recent weeks to harvest another three bushels perfect for canning because most of our plants grew in a greenhouse film-covered tunnel in the middle of the field behind the barn.
“How much are you asking for them?” she asked timidly. From her tone, I sensed she had need.
“How much are you offering?”
“10 bucks,” she replied, a question mark still in her voice.
“Perfect. Do you know where we are?”
“Oh, yes. I’ll be over this afternoon.”
Hours later, a woman walked up to the door, a woman I hadn’t seen since last summer. From September through November, she came once or twice a week and purchased pounds of Swiss chard, bushels of tomatoes, cartons of squash. She was preparing for winter and I was honored she chose our farm to buy the food she would process for her family.
“I haven’t seen you in a long time.”
“I’m unemployed now.” The look on her face broke my heart.
“Was it you who called earlier about tomatoes?”
She nodded. I nearly lost it. I wouldn’t call her my friend – we don’t hang out and do stuff together or anything – but she’s certainly my neighbor. I knew she worked for the State of Maine and with all the recent budget cuts, it didn’t surprise me that she’d lost her job. I also knew she had a big extended family to feed and here she was on my doorstep knowing we give away food but offering to buy a half bushel of tomatoes nonetheless.
I tried not to be awkward. I’m not sure I succeeded.
“Um. Well. It’s Wednesday and we offer a free hot meal today in addition to the fresh veggies. Would you like one?”
She shook her head, eyes cast down at the ground upon which we stood.
“We’ll, I’ll be insulted if you don’t take some of this food I cooked, so here.” She obliged. I gave her four meals, asked her to put them in her car and meet me in the garage so I could show her where the tomatoes were.
She handed me the 10 bucks before walking to her car. I didn’t refuse the money because I’ve been poor and hungry and it still never felt right to me to take anything for free since I was lucky enough to always have a few dollars to give. Clearly, she felt the same way. I didn’t want to insult her either.
After we showed her which box to fill up with organic tomatoes, my godson and I left her alone in the garage where all of our fall harvest is stored. Winter squash and pumpkins. Melons, carrots, turnips, rutabagas, and beets. Potatoes, sweet potatoes, cabbage, onions and leeks.
We sat in the kitchen and watched her through the window put the box of tomatoes in her car. Then she went back and got two more boxes of something else. That made my heart sing.
And so it was that a woman in need called on a hot-meal Wednesday offering to buy tomatoes so she wouldn’t feel shame about coming to receive the food she needed. That’s called pride. And I know there are lots of people like her who would never use a traditional food pantry they’d have to sign-in for because their pride simply wouldn’t allow it.
When she was leaving, she saw my godson and expressed her gratitude with a smile. “Tell Craig thanks so much for everything.”
If you saw her walking down the street, you probably wouldn’t think she was hungry. That she needed food. You can’t always tell. You just can’t. You can’t ever be sure the level of need a person has, but know this: everyone has a right to food so we must make sure we don’t keep anyone from the table. No one among us should go hungry for a single day. Put another way: we cannot allow a single person among us to go hungry for a single day.
Now make no mistake, feeding people isn’t a selfless act. We’re only as strong as the least among us, so if one person is hungry, we’re all hungry. Moreover, the miracle of feeding people that the wise man I mentioned earlier spoke of happens as much inside the person giving the food as it does in the person receiving it. That’s how love works. The act of giving brings me joy. Pure joy.
Sometimes I happen to be in the music room in the front of the house when I see someone through the window gathering food off the farm stand by the side of the road. Much of the food there disappears in the middle of the night so if I catch a chance during the day, I always stay and watch until they’re finished. What will they take? What do they like to eat? What do I need to grow more of next year? I’ll watch them fill up a bag and drive away. Sometimes a person will sample something – a string bean or a cherry tomato – and decide it’s not sweet enough or firm enough and they’ll choose something else. Sometimes I feel like I’m spying on them, but hey, they can’t see me inside, it’s all out in the open anyway, so I get over myself and allow my writer’s curiosity to win out. When I watch a hungry person or a person in need have a chance to actually choose what they take to eat, I smile then. Or laugh out loud, rain falling from my eyes.
Food is life. People who want to live need to eat. And there’s no reason whatsoever why we can’t come together as a community and feed them. I’m going to say that again:
People who want to live need to eat. And there’s no reason whatsoever why we can’t come together as a community and feed them.
People who want to be free need to eat. As Civil Rights Leader and food sovereignty activist Fannie Lou Hamer used to say, “When you’ve got 400 quarts of greens and gumbo soup canned for the winter, nobody can push you around or tell you what to say or do.”
So go, young people. Go. Out into the community and collect as many pounds of food as you can collect for the agencies in your community that feed the people.
Food is life.
Now go. Make miracles.
So go, young people. Go. Out into the community and collect as many pounds of food as you can collect for the agencies in your community that feed the people.
Food is life.
Now go. Make miracles.
And with that guiding principal, and all the activism—and action—born from it, the good people of Winthrop and Readfield, two predominantly white, conservative, rural towns in Central Maine, elected me, a black man from away, to represent them in the Maine House, not once, not twice, but three times, proving that it doesn’t matter what you look like, or who you love, or how you walk or talk. It only matters what you do. In other words, the people in my beloved community have judged me not by the color of my skin but by the content of my character.
Does the arc of our moral universe bend toward justice?
I was conceived in Huntsville, Alabama, on the campus of Oakwood Seventh Day Adventist College on February 14, 1967, just eight weeks before Dr. King delivered his speech, “Beyond Vietnam, Time to Break the Silence,” at Riverside Church in New York City, a speech that distilled Dr. King's belief that racism, economic exploitation and war were all connected as the triple evils of society, a speech delivered exactly one year before his assassination.
I was born by the lake in a little house in Madison, Wisconsin, on December 8, 1967, just four weeks after Dr. King delivered his “But If Not” speech at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta Georgia, a speech where he promoted civil disobedience against unjust and unconscionable laws, a speech that encouraged his followers to lead regardless of fear, to find and fight for a cause you are willing to die for.
I was adopted by Hazelle and Minnie Juanita Hickman in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in April 1969, one year after Dr. King’s assassination. After Southern blacks moved north during the Great Migration following World War I, Milwaukee became a city of segregated neighborhoods where deep ethnic pride and the guarding of staked-out territories created enemy lines that caused decades of conflict and unrest. During the sixties, Milwaukee was called the Selma of the North when a throng of Negroes marched against Jim Crow and violence, my parents among them. The children of these activists were wrought, cast and molded in the same smelting furnaces from the same sturdy iron. The strongest ones turned to steel, able to withstand anything.
Five weeks ago, I observed, in some disbelief and with great relief, the milestone of my 50th birthday. The arc of my life corresponds almost exactly to the span of time since Dr. King handed us the baton in the struggle for beauty, love, peace and justice, and so it seems serendipitous that I would be standing before you today delivering these remarks. And even as I stand here, living proof that we have come a long way, let us never deny nor disremember the events and realities that show us we still have a long way to go.
For even as I stand here today, in every state in this nation, including Maine, blacks are incarcerated at rates disproportionate to that of whites, prolonging a new slavery of mass incarceration with no presidential emancipation proclamation on the way. The carceral state irreparably harms black families and communities and exposes the gruesome modes by which our nation’s prison industrial complex profits off black pain.
For even as I stand here today, women and men all over this nation are profiled and brutalized my women and men in uniform who take an oath to serve and protect. A national protest against this brutality on the grandest of stages has been brazenly coopted by right-wing excesses of extremism, nationalism, and militarism.
For even as I stand here today, it is not safe for black men in Mississippi. I hold in my hand a news article dated June 2017 that tells of a black man, 22-year-old Phillip Carroll, who was found dead hanging from a tree in his front lawn, his hands bound behind his back, his death ruled a suicide by local authorities, even though his hands were bound behind his back. The same news article tells the story of another black man, 30-year-old Jeremy Jerome Jackson, who was shot in the leg, beheaded while still alive, his body burned to a crisp in a field a mile from his home, his head placed on his front porch on full display for passersby to bear witness. It is beyond time that we deal with the legacy of lynching in this nation. It is time for this nation to get right.
For even as I stand here today, half of the people in this nation live in poverty and too many people cannot afford to see a doctor or a dentist. “Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how incredibly expensive it is to be poor.”
For even as I stand here today, 90 percent of the food Maine people consume is imported from elsewhere while one in four children in Maine goes to bed hungry every night. Surely, we can do better.
For even as I stand here today, young people, senior citizens, minorities and others all over this land are blocked from exercising their right to vote because of voter suppression laws and conniving shenanigans that date back to Jim Crow. There can be no freedom without justice and in a free society there can be no justice without universal suffrage.
I am reminded of the words of the great American author James Baldwin who wrote, “One must say Yes to life and embrace it wherever it is found, and it is found in terrible places. For nothing is fixed; forever and forever, it is not fixed. The earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock. Generations do not cease to be born and we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have. The sea rises, the light fades, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us, and the light goes out.”
As I come to my conclusion, I want to thank President Alpert once again from the bottom of my heart for inviting me to address this gathering. I thank you for your undivided attention today. Always treat one another with kindness, and take care of your blessings.
We are at a crossroads. The soul of this nation is sick right now. We must all come together to help heal her ills. There is no time for silence. There is no time for apathy. There is no time for despair. We must organize. We must show up. We must keep faith with one another. We must hold on to hope. And by all means, we must always vote. For as the great John Lewis, civil rights leader turned United States Congressman, rightfully proclaims, “The vote is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have.”
I will close in the year 2015. I am standing before the Maine House of Representatives to speak to my motion to move the adoption of a joint resolution.
Remarks of Representative Craig V. Hickman on the Joint Resolution Recognizing the 50th Anniversary of the March from Selma to Montgomery – March 25, 2015
Mr. Speaker, women and men of the House, “in a murderous time/ the heart breaks and breaks/ and lives by breaking.” Those are the words of two-time Poet Laureate and National Book Award recipient Stanley Kunitz. “The heart breaks and breaks and lives by breaking.”
My heart has been breaking a lot lately. Not just because I recently buried my beloved mother, but also because recent events throughout the nation and even here at home are ripping my heart to shreds. But today, I want to go back and remember words of wisdom. Words of inspiration to a nation divided. I wasn’t here 50 years ago and I won’t be here 50 years from now. And so, if you would indulge me, Mr. Speaker, I would like to deliver some excerpts from the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “How Long, Not Long” speech in Montgomery, Alabama, at the culmination of the Selma to Montgomery March on March 25, 1965.
And so I quote:
My dear and abiding friends, Ralph Abernathy, and to all of the distinguished Americans seated here on the rostrum, my friends and co-workers of the state of Alabama, and to all of the freedom-loving people who have assembled here this afternoon from all over our nation and from all over the world: Last Sunday, more than eight thousand of us started on a mighty walk from Selma, Alabama. We have walked through desolate valleys and across the trying hills. We have walked on meandering highways and rested our bodies on rocky byways. Some of our faces are burned from the outpourings of the sweltering sun. Some have literally slept in the mud. We have been drenched by the rains.
But today as I stand before you and think back over that great march, I can say, as Sister Pollard said—a seventy-year-old Negro woman who lived in this community during the bus boycott—and one day, she was asked while walking if she didn’t want [a] ride. And when she answered, "No," the person said, "Well, aren’t you tired?" And with her ungrammatical profundity, she said, "My feets is tired, but my soul is rested." And in a real sense this afternoon, we can say that our feet are tired, but our souls are rested.
They told us we wouldn’t get here. And there were those who said that we would get here only over their dead bodies, but all the world today knows that we are here and we are standing before the forces of power in the state of Alabama saying, "We ain’t goin’ let nobody turn us around."
[Now] strangely, the climactic conflicts always were fought and won on Alabama soil. After Montgomery’s, heroic confrontations loomed up in Mississippi, Arkansas, Georgia, and elsewhere. But not until the colossus of segregation was challenged in Birmingham did the conscience of America begin to bleed…. America was profoundly aroused by Birmingham because it witnessed the whole community of Negroes facing terror and brutality with majestic scorn and heroic courage. And from the wells of this democratic spirit, the nation finally forced Congress to write legislation in the hope that it would eradicate the stain of Birmingham. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 gave Negroes some part of their rightful dignity, but without the vote it was dignity without strength.
[And so] our whole campaign in Alabama has been centered around the right to vote. In focusing the attention of the nation and the world today on the flagrant denial of the right to vote, we are exposing the very origin, the root cause, of racial segregation in the Southland. Racial segregation as a way of life did not come about as a natural result of hatred between the races immediately after the Civil War. There were no laws segregating the races then. And as the noted historian, C. Vann Woodward, in his book, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, clearly points out, the segregation of the races was really a political stratagem employed by the emerging Bourbon interests in the South to keep the southern masses divided and southern labor the cheapest in the land. You see, it was a simple thing to keep the poor white masses working for near-starvation wages in the years that followed the Civil War. Why, if the poor white plantation or mill worker became dissatisfied with his low wages, the plantation or mill owner would merely threaten to fire him and hire former Negro slaves and pay him even less. Thus, the southern wage level was kept almost unbearably low.
Toward the end of the Reconstruction era, something very significant happened. That is what was known as the Populist Movement. The leaders of this movement began awakening the poor white masses and the former Negro slaves to the fact that they were being fleeced by the emerging Bourbon interests. Not only that, but they began uniting the Negro and white masses into a voting bloc that threatened to drive the Bourbon interests from the command posts of political power in the South.
[Now] if it may be said of the slavery era that the white man took the world and gave the Negro Jesus, then it may be said of the Reconstruction era that the southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow. He gave him Jim Crow. And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man. And he ate Jim Crow. And when his undernourished children cried out for the necessities that his low wages could not provide, he showed them the Jim Crow signs on the buses and in the stores, on the streets and in the public buildings. And his children, too, learned to feed upon Jim Crow, their last outpost of psychological oblivion.
Thus, the threat of the free exercise of the ballot by the Negro and the white masses alike resulted in the establishment of a segregated society. They segregated southern money from the poor whites; they segregated southern mores from the rich whites; they segregated southern churches from Christianity; they segregated southern minds from honest thinking; and they segregated the Negro from everything. That’s what happened when the Negro and white masses of the South threatened to unite and build a great society: a society of justice where none would pray upon the weakness of others; a society of plenty where greed and poverty would be done away; a society of brotherhood where every man would respect the dignity and worth of human personality.
Today I want to tell the city of Selma, today I want to say to the state of Alabama, today I want to say to the people of America and the nations of the world, that we are not about to turn around. We are on the move now.
Yes, we are on the move and no wave of racism can stop us. We are on the move now. The burning of our churches will not deter us. The bombing of our homes will not dissuade us. We are on the move now. The beating and killing of our clergymen and young people will not divert us. We are on the move now…. Like an idea whose time has come, not even the marching of mighty armies can halt us. We are moving to the land of freedom.
Let us therefore continue our triumphant march to the realization of the American dream….
Let us march on segregated schools until every vestige of segregated and inferior education becomes a thing of the past…
Let us march on poverty until no American parent has to skip a meal so that their children may eat. Let us march on poverty until no starved man walks the streets of our cities and towns in search of jobs that do not exist. Let us march on poverty until wrinkled stomachs in Mississippi are filled, and the idle industries of Appalachia are realized and revitalized, and broken lives in sweltering ghettos are mended and remolded.
Let us march on ballot boxes… until race-baiters disappear from the political arena.
Let us march on ballot boxes until the salient misdeeds of bloodthirsty mobs will be transformed into the calculated good deeds of orderly citizens.
Let us march on ballot boxes until the [George] Wallaces of our nation tremble away in silence.
Let us march on ballot boxes until we send to our city councils, state legislatures, and the United States Congress, men who will not fear to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God.
Let us march on ballot boxes until brotherhood becomes more than a meaningless word in an opening prayer, but the order of the day on every legislative agenda….
The only normalcy that we will settle for is the normalcy that recognizes the dignity and worth of all of God’s children. The only normalcy that we will settle for is the normalcy that allows justice to run down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream. The only normalcy that we will settle for is….the normalcy of true peace, the normalcy of justice.
And so as we go away this afternoon, let us go away more than ever before committed to this struggle and committed to nonviolence.… Our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate the white man, but to win his friendship and understanding. We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience.
I know you are asking today, "How long will it take?" Somebody’s asking, "How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne?"
Somebody’s asking, "When will wounded justice, lying prostrate on the streets of Selma and Birmingham and communities all over the South, be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men?"
Somebody’s asking, "When will the radiant star of hope be plunged against the nocturnal bosom of this lonely night, plucked from weary souls with chains of fear and the manacles of death? How long will justice be crucified, and truth bear it?"
I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because "truth crushed to earth will rise again."
How long? Not long, because "no lie can live forever."
How long? Not long, because "you shall reap what you sow."
How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
How long? Not long, because:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He has loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword;
His truth is marching on.
Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah!
His truth is marching on!