Reflecting on Martin Luther King Jr.'s unfulfilled dream



Last modified: Tuesday, January 21, 2014

NORTHAMPTON — A couple of hundred people packed into the Edwards Church in Northampton Monday afternoon to reflect on and celebrate the as-yet-unfulfilled dream of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The convocation capped the 30th annual celebration of King’s birthday, pre-dating federal recognition of the holiday by about two years.

Rev. Janet C. Bush of the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence said in the weeks leading up to King being struck down by an assassin’s bullet on April 4, 1968, he was aware his life was in danger and would likely not live long enough to see the civil rights work he came to be associated with continue.

Bush referred to a sermon King gave about a month before he was slain which drew parallels between King David’s desire to see a great temple built, though he wouldn’t be able to see its completion, and his own position within the civil rights movement of the late 1960s.

Bush said King and his followers were blessed because they had the desire in their hearts to have that metaphorical temple built.

Rev. Matilda Rose Cantwell, an interfaith fellow at Smith College, also addressed the crowd and said the country needs to move away from a penal system based on retribution and instead toward one of “restorative justice” to help people develop skills to be able to make positive contributions to society when released.

Steve O’Neill, executive director for Interstate Organizing Ex-prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement, said much of that unfinished temple has to do with the inequality inherent in America’s penal system.

O’Neill said sweeping prison reforms and “tough on crime” legislation that began to be introduced in the wake of the civil rights movent created a new type of “Jim Crow” law that disproportionately targets and incarcerates people of color.

O’Neill said that despite making up only 12 percent of the U.S. population, African-Americans are arrested, convicted and incarcerated for drug crimes at rates far higher than their white counterparts, despite drug use and sales being about even across all ethnicities.

“The dream has not been fulfilled,” O’Neill said. “For many people, it’s gotten worse.”

Tucker Marvin and Bender Bear spoke about what they called the shocking number of LGBTQ people incarcerated in U.S. prisons. Marvin and Bear are part of a group called Tranzmission which hopes to create safe and welcoming spaces and activities for members of the LGBTQ community.

Marvin said the LGBTQ community is incarcerated at higher rates than others due to higher numbers of them winding up without shelter or safe places to stay after being displaced from their homes as a result of bullying or rejection.

Once out on the streets, she said, they are at higher risk for arrest and incarceration.

The Nields recruited children to perform with them at the end of Monday’s program after Cantwell gave a brief overview of the 1962 “Children’s Crusade” during which Alabama youths participated in non-violent demonstrations and were arrested by the hundreds, only to be released to continue demonstrating the following day.

Cantwell used the anecdote to illustrate how those who may feel they are powerless actually may have more power than they are aware.

“Being and feeling powerless is poison,” O’Neill said.

Bob Dunn can be reached at bdunn@gazettenet.com.




 

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