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MLK Day Remarks

Remarks by Whitworth University President Beck A. Taylor on the occasion of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Unity Rally and March in Spokane, Wash.
Jan. 16, 2017
Spokane Convention Center

I am humbled and honored to be a part of this important celebration. There are many in this community who are much more deserving than I to stand here and speak to you this morning. But as someone who sees himself as an ally in fighting for racial justice and reconciliation in our community; and as someone who leads an institution of higher learning dedicated, in part, to educating and equipping our community to recognize and lift up those who are marginalized and discriminated against, and to tearing down the walls of hatred and fear; and as someone who has gone through my own personal journey of discovering my role in this great, cosmic journey toward justice, I am happy to stand before you today to express my solidarity and my willingness to show up, speak out, and be counted when the trumpets for justice sound.

I want to speak briefly this morning on what it means to be an ally. Being an ally in the cause of justice doesn't look the same for everyone. But there are common threads in the stories of people who lay down their lives in service of those whose lives are marked by a chronic struggle for justice and in service to righteous ideals and values that oppose those who would demean the humanity of others and oppress the causes of freedom and equality.

My own story begins with an important and sobering reality. And that is that I personally benefit from privileges and power that are a function of my skin color as well as, perhaps, my gender, my citizenship, my health, and any number of other personal characteristics that are largely unmerited and unearned and that should not correlate directly with my position in society or with the opportunities I've been given. I don't say these things out of guilt. Most of us can acknowledge that we are largely the products of our circumstances, and we cannot claim credit for many of the things that cause us to climb higher or that hold us back. But the mere recognition of where one stands in society on the spectrum of power and privilege is an important first step in recognizing one's calling as an ally. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus said, "From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked." Friends, most of us in this room today can claim to have been given much in life. That recognition compels us to "do much" in service to others.

A second important step in my own journey to becoming an effective ally in the fight for justice and equality is this: to admit that the social forces, the prejudices and stereotypes, and the structures and systems in our economic, educational, and social arrangements that have led, in part, to my own position of power in this community are the same flawed systems that have served as a yoke of oppression, cruelty, disadvantage, and inhumanity for many of my neighbors. There is no doubt in my mind that racism and discrimination are sins. But they are not just my sins, or your sins, or the other person's sins. They are our sins. The scourge of racism has a sum that is greater than its parts. We must recognize that systemic and structural forms of oppression exist all around us. And it takes real courage to chip away at the same stepping stones of power that elevated many of us to the top of the pyramid in order to level the playing field and create opportunities for others. That's what real allies do.

In addition to being willing to admit to and own one's own power and privilege – to recognize that each of us has indeed been given much – and to understanding the prevailing systems and structures that have contributed to sustaining cultures and outcomes of unjust discrimination, there's one more important step in being a friend and ally in this noble cause. And that is to show up and be counted among those who devote their lives to ensuring that the chains of oppression and discrimination are broken. You see, I can readily admit to my own privileges, and I can study historical and structural sources of bias and racism, all from the safe confines of my own world – in my case, the ivory tower of education. But until you and I are willing to step out of our own worlds and into the worlds occupied by the tired and downtrodden, the oppressed, and other agents of justice and mercy, we cannot truly count ourselves among those allies who are serving this righteous cause.

No, to be counted among that group, you and I need to step out of our comfort zones, to link arms with those who stand in this fight for freedom – people who may be very different from ourselves – and to risk something. Dr. King risked everything. And he gave everything, even his life. "Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for his friends."

Dr. King wasn't always understood. Drum majors for justice and change rarely are. In April 1963, Dr. King went to Birmingham, Ala. Many of his fellow clergy members felt strongly that he shouldn't travel there, and they cited various reasons to keep him from going. In a letter written from his Birmingham jail cell and smuggled out on bits and pieces of paper, Dr. King responded to his critics by stating, "I am in Birmingham because injustice is here."

Friends, Spokane citizens, lovers of justice, allies for equality, we are here today because injustice is here, in our community and in our nation. And whenever and wherever injustice rears its evil head, we will show up. We will be counted.

Today isn't a check-the-box day. After this rally, we won't simply go back to our homes and places of work and worship, wasting the next 364 days until we gather again to remember Dr. King. No, we will use this day to commence our year of steadfast and inspired work to bring justice, equality, fairness, love and shalom to our communities, and to work side-by-side with our brothers and sisters to tear down the walls of hostility and hatred in our midst. Today, and every day, we are all allies in this cause.

May God bless each of you as you work for the causes of freedom and justice here and elsewhere. Thank you.