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Taking Risks for Your Brothers: The Power of Dr. King's Words

By Raymond Brown


Brown works in the litigation department at Greenbaum, Rowe, Smith and Davis and is chair of its White Collar Defense & Corporate Compliance Practice Group. He is an expert on global human rights. Brown will speak atDiversityInc’s April 2425 diversity conference, Managing the Global War for Talent.

It was the first time a secular speech gave me chills. The details of the precise Manhattan venue and my age (13 to 15) have faded. I do, however, recall the context.

I was a child of what we called the “movement.” My dad had taken me to hear Dr. King speak in the context of the struggle with the conservative leadership of the NAACP. (Although my dad was president of Jersey City NAACP, he was not on their side in this fight. In fact, when a national news magazine asked him on the eve of the 1963 March on Washington if he thought NAACP Executive Director Roy Wilkins was asleep at the switch, he had replied, “Hell, Roy doesn’t even know where the switch is.”)

I don’t recall every minute of King’s speech except the talismanic words and phrases “justice freedom the redemptive power of unmerited suffering”and the chills. I did know that this was an argument over direct action and protest in the movement, an argument on which King prevailed.

For more on the power of words as tools to combat hateful speech, read “NBA Star John Amaechi: Hate Speech Goes Beyond N- and F-Words.” For more on dispelling stereotypes, read “‘Blacks Should Not Be Satisfied With Food Stamps’: The Danger of Stereotypes.”

Years later, however, I trailed silently behind my dad the night before the march when the “old heads,” led by the eminence grise and father of the march, A. Phillip Randolph, prevailed upon John Lewis and others not to denounce King as irrelevant and the march itself as “too little too late.” Since that August, my stomach has turned as the forces of reaction and revision have used the phrase “content of their character” to convert King into a prophet of post-racialism.

But it’s not a parlor game to say that King believed in “human rights.” He was championing the subject just 20 years after the concept was born and long before it gained its current traction. Much of the conversation about his “Mountaintop” speech at Mason Temple the night before his assassination has missed this point and mistakenly emphasized his Mosaic premonition of death.

King used the Mason Temple moment to defend himself against those who charged him with sullying the banner of civil rights by defending underpaid garbage workers in Memphis. His response was that he was living in a time of the “Human Rights Revolution” and he would support people from Johannesburg to Memphis who were “rising” to demand freedom and justice.

His text that night was the parable of the Good Samaritan. He argued that the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was “really conducive” to ambushing because of the height of the bordering dunes. He emphasized that in leaving the road to offer rescue, the Samaritan was responding to the call of a “man of another race,” thereby projecting the “I” into “thou” and taking risks for his “brother.”

“If I do not stop to help with man, what will happen to him … If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them”

In this century, my wife, Wanda, and I journeyed from teaching in Egypt to take up the implicit challenge in King’s speech and walk that road. The dunes are still there; there is still a risk in leaving that road. The decision to venture out is no less burdened with complex considerations of gender, race, class, religion and ethnicity than it ever was before. And when I think of my dad, King, John Lewis and thousands of others, from Jersey City to Darfur, who choose to take that chance and leave the road and risk the dunes, sometimes with eloquence and sometimes in silenceI still get those chills.

Read other accounts on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

BeforeMLK, None of My Accomplishments Would Have Been Possible

DiversityInc’s Denyse Leslie, senior vice president of consulting, draws a parallel between Dr. King’s firsts (first arrest, first book published, first Black man to win the Nobel Peace Prize) and the firsts of Blacks still alive (or recently deceased) as they live out Dr. King’s vision.

Civil-Rights Progress: Helping LGBT Youth

GLSEN’s Executive Director Dr. Eliza Byard notes how Dr. King’s message that Black people would eventually reach the promised land is a reminder today that progress, no matter how slow, is crucial.

How Has Dr. King’s Legacy Changed Lives

While Hurricane Irene hit during the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial dedication, R. Fenimore Fisher reflected on how Dr. King’s actions changed the law that changed society.

What Dr. King Really Meant: The Obligation That Benefits Everyone

Why is the business case for diversity a reality and not just a theory It is directly due to Dr. King and the civil-rights era, explains DiversityInc CEO Luke Visconti.

Watch Raymond Brown speak on human rights and segregation. For more on Black History and the civil-rights movement, read “Discover Americas Black History” and “Re-Centering the History in Black History.”

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