Roy Exum: Where Was Our Dr. King?

Tuesday, January 21, 2014 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

In Huntsville, Ala., yesterday there were over 1,300 people who gathered at the Von Braun Center to “eat, pray, laugh and applaud” what the city has done in over a quarter-century for racial unity. They’ve been having the Martin Luther King breakfast there for 29 straight years and this year they honored a priest and a cop, if you can imagine that, as the top role models. Afterwards everybody spent a great part of the day to volunteer for service projects in and around the city.

In Baltimore the guest speaker was Shirley Sherrod, the woman who was once fired by the USDA after a video surfaced of her making racist remarks against whites. The video turned out to be a vicious fraud, and after being brazenly embarrassed, she was offered her job back but now she has a higher calling – her book, and her message, are called “The Courage To Hope.” Wouldn’t you have loved to hear her story and learn what it is that she hopes?

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said at Ebenezer Baptist yesterday that Dr. King would implore children to stay in school and learn the message: "You are not going to school just to study math, you're going to school to be somebody." Our United States has never needed inner city “somebodies” quite as badly.

Cities all across America joined together to honor Dr. King’s life and his legacy on Monday and, while I hope I am wrong, I couldn’t seem to find a similar gathering in honor of Dr. King in Chattanooga. Lord knows we need one right about now because by my gauge a lot of feelings around town are still hurt.

We’ve just taken what we were told are the “worst of the worst” off the streets and we’ve got those who unfortunately try to turn real crime into a racial cauldron instead. We’ve still got children who are shooting children. We have the promising “High Point” Initiative and we have a special prosecutor that suddenly must trade barbs with the dues-hungry NAACP.

Now we are faced with the promise of “the next wave” of a criminal roundup but I can’t seem to find where we – as a community of white and black political leaders, business owners, educators and judges – are embracing Dr. King’s great plea: “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”

If ever Chattanooga needed to turn on the love-light, it is now. The Times Free Press just laid our souls bare with its special “Speak No Evil” section. The eight-page section proved “There is a code in the inner city of Chattanooga and people are dying to keep it.” It only stands to reason that Dr. King was so right when he famously said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

I believe that if our churches would band together in a concerted way, by this time next year maybe we could have a unity breakfast at the Convention and Trade Center every bit as big and just as important as our annual Prayer Breakfast every spring. Don’t you remember Dr. King also said, “In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

We desperately need to talk to one another, not in what morphed into some shout-out at the Bethlehem Center or a near-riot in our courtroom over a guilty verdict but as “brothers” and “sisters” who honestly want to help one another. Anyone who has read Dr. King’s speeches or marveled at his grace understands the meaning of every word when he said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”

I believe Mayor Andy Berke is quietly doing a lot of good things for our city. I really do. And I’m a big fan of former Howard School principal Paul Smith and his effort to teach our community about how the High Point program will pay such dividends if we embrace it. But I also believe that until Chattanooga can have an MLK Breakfast where the only requisite is that you promise to sit next to some “new friend” of a different color we will never get as far as so many cities that “eat, pray, laugh, and applaud” each other in memory of America’s wonderful man of hope, Dr. Martin Luther King.

* * *

“When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’”

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