June 16, 2023
At National Cathedral, Pressley Delivers Keynote Honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Pre-Juneteenth Address Delivered at Site of King’s Final Sermon in 1968
WASHINGTON – In case you missed it yesterday, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (MA-07) visited the Washington National Cathedral to deliver keynote remarks honoring the life and legacy of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In her remarks—which took place ahead of the Juneteenth holiday and at the site where Dr. King’s delivered his final Sunday sermon in 1968: Remaining Awake Through A Great Revolution—Rep. Pressley discussed how we can remain awake today and follow King’s blueprint for revolutionary change.
The Congresswoman’s remarks were part of an event hosted by the Washington National Cathedral and March on Washington Film Festival, and were followed by a discussion about King’s life featuring biographer Jonathan Eig and the Cathedral’s Canon Theologian, The Rev. Canon Kelly Brown Douglas.
Transcript: Rep. Pressley’s Keynote Address Honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Washington National Cathedral
June 15, 2023
Good evening, beloved community, and thank you.
Thank you Washington National Cathedral, thank you March on Washington Film Festival. Thank you Bishop Budde, Reverend Douglas, and everyone gathered here this evening.
It is truly a surreal and humbling honor to stand before you in this sacred cathedral. In this sacred moment. At this critical inflection point in our nation’s history.
When we reflect on Dr. King and his legacy, we often recall him as a spiritual and moral leader, a scholar and thought leader, and an early architect of the Civil Rights Movement.
Often, King is singularly characterized as a peaceful protestor with a dream.
When we know that the whole truth—as Mr. Eig’s new book makes plain—is Dr. King was a proud and unapologetic Black man. A prophetic preacher and radical dreamer with a bold vision and a desire for revolutionary change.
He was a disruptive movement builder. Disruptive because he sought to upend the legislated status quo, and to reverse the hurt and harms of policy violence that have denied Black Americans our full rights and freedoms.
His vision was a radical one, considered bold for the times—and perhaps bold by many still today.
Full inclusion, equity, a redistribution of wealth and resources, and voting rights.
In word and in deed, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sought to affirm that Black lives matter.
Fifty-five years ago, mere days before his assassination, Dr. King stood in this pulpit, and spoke of the need to remain awake through a great revolution.
To be aware of the challenges still present here and across the globe.
To eradicate racial injustice, and rid our nation and the world of poverty.
And, perhaps most importantly, he reminded us that we are one human family. That our freedoms and our destinies are inextricably tied.
That what happens to one of us, should be the business of all of us.
As I revisited Dr. King’s words, I was struck—but not surprised—by how relevant and resonant these words are to this moment we find ourselves in today.
Today, we live in a world where poverty, inequality, and racial injustice remain the status quo.
The three evils of militarism, racism and poverty that King worked actively to disrupt are daily more intrenched.
I represent the Massachusetts 7th Congressional District, a vibrant, diverse, dynamic district—and also one of the most unequal in our nation.
In a three-mile radius, life expectancy drops by 30 years, from Cambridge to predominantly Black Roxbury. Where according to the Federal Reserve of Boston in their Color of Wealth report, the median net worth of a Black Boston family is eight dollars, and that of a white family is nearly two-hundred and fifty thousand dollars.
And when we look at our country as a whole, the racial wealth gap is over ten trillion dollars—that’s trillion with a T. A shameful reality and a damning commentary for the wealthiest nation in our world.
You know, much has been said and written about how America, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, underwent a so-called “reckoning on racial injustice.”
I see no evidence of that. As someone who was raised in a storefront church on the Southside of Chicago at the knee of my grandfather Reverend James E. Echeols, and as a student of Reverend Barbara I don’t play with words like reckoning.
A reckoning is something of biblical, epic proportions. And we are simply not there yet. We have yet to see a response commensurate to the harm that Black folks have experienced for generations.
Instead, we live in a world where the legislative and social progress we’ve made, thanks to Dr. King, Coretta Scott King, and others, are under attack daily.
Where after this summer of so called “reckoning,” we see the forces of injustice and white supremacy pushing and lashing back and rolling back, gains made in civil and human rights.
A devastating reminder that gains are not guaranteed.
Gains are not guarantees when inaction, inertia and insurrection thrive.
Gains are not guaranteed when the white moderate is complicit and white supremacy is emboldened.
Gains are not guaranteed when today’s boycotts are short lived, faith is shallow, and second-class citizenship is accepted as inevitable.
Gains are not guaranteed when we merely are grateful to be at the table, but are unwilling to shake it.
Although we are not in the midst of a true reckoning, I do believe that we are in the midst of a shift.
And my very existence and election are evidence of this.
A power shift, one that is being led by a supermajority of the most marginalized.
You see, it is one thing to celebrate diversity with flag raisings and holidays and parade pins, but it is another thing all together to be confronted with the prospect of shared power.
We are long overdue for some guarantees. Preservation and expansion of the gains made and new gains made real.
But I know ultimately, we will only see systemic, transformative change for Black folks and all marginalized people, when we are advancing policies and budgets that codify the value of Black lives, center our humanity, our dignity, invest in our genius, and promote the promise of equal access, opportunity, and justice.
And it is time that we build a truly just and equitable America, as Dr. King intended for all God’s children.
Parents are a child’s first teacher. I had two extraordinary ones in my parents.
My mother Sandy, may she rest in peace and power, and my father Martin made sure I knew that it was a beautiful thing to be Black and something that I should be proud of. I was told this throughout my formative years.
But they also wanted their baby girl to know that she was being born into a struggle. And they had an expectation that I would do my part, play a role in that struggle—in the fight for justice and our collective liberation.
At 49-years-old, the work of liberation is a life-long struggle, and as far as I see it, we are still in the Civil Rights Movement.
Now, despite what history books may tell us and the news may report, the Civil Rights Movement did not begin and end with Rosa taking a seat, John crossing a bridge and Martin leading a march.
The movement was more than three leaders with three actions and the same must be true today. In order for the movement to survive and for change to be actualized. Indeed, change can’t wait.
When Jim Crow is still alive in front and all around us.
Jim Crow is not behind us when the Senate filibuster is preserved.
Jim Crow is not behind us when state laws have been introduced to disenfranchise our votes, erase our history, and restrict our bodily autonomy.
Jim Crow is not behind us. It is not behind us when Black home ownership is the lowest it’s been in decades, and Black students bear the burden of a nearly 2 trillion-dollar student debt crisis.
Jim Crow is not behind us when police brutality is the sixth leading cause of death for Black men, and Black women are still four times more likely to die in childbirth.
No, Jim Crow is not behind us when Black Americans make up 13 percent of the US population and 40 percent of those incarcerated behind the wall.
Jim Crow is not behind us when childcare and home workers, majority Black and brown women, don’t earn a living wage.
Or when Black women are paid only 63 cents for every dollar paid to white men.
Jim Crow is not behind us and we are still in the Civil Rights Movement when the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, John Lewis Voting Rights Act, and constitutional gender equality and federal reparations are not yet the law of the land.
Jim Crow is still alive in front and all around us.
Earlier, I spoke of the revision and erasure of core components of Dr. King’s message, vision and dream. That erasure or revisionist history has also been true for the role that Coretta played in his life and in the movement as well.
For those who may be unaware, Martin and Coretta forged their love in the Massachusetts 7th Congressional District. In Boston, in Roxbury at the historic Twelfth Baptist Church.
What a credible reminder and demonstration of the power of love, of the power of Black love, of the power of Black radical love to birth movements.
Long before there was the movement, before there was Montgomery, there was Boston.
Loretta has often singularly been characterized as a devoted wife. In fact, she was, but she was also a trusted confidant, advisor, effective strategist and activist in her own right.
Dr. King didn’t radicalize Coretta. He fell in love with her because she was already radicalized.
She stoked our consciousness and reminded us that every disparity, hardship, and social ill is the result of a policy or a budget choice, a violent choice at that.
I believe in the power of the movement, of the pulpit, and of the pen.
Policy is my love language, because it is policy that has caused us generational hurt and harm.
It is discriminatory, short-sighted, precise policy and unjust budgets, systemic racial injustice is the consequence of that.
And although no single bill can undo centuries of harm, I firmly believe that if we can legislate hurt and harm, we can and we must legislate equity, healing and justice.
In his final sermon, Dr. King inspired us, called us to remain active and engaged during periods of great social change, lest we risk halting the progress our ancestors fought, bled and died for.
In his prophetic words:
“Human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God. And without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation.”
King was right.
It is easy to become dispirited or apathetic. Lord knows I get wary, we all do.
Given the political landscape and the climate that we find ourselves in, but we haven’t the luxury of time because change can’t wait. Instead, we must practice the discipline of hope over the ease of cynicism. And fortitude over fatalism.
Dr. King challenged us to remain awake during the revolution.
But not only must we remain awake, we must also remain vigilant, and relentless in our pursuit of justice.
When I need strength to go forward, I take stock of our past.
This weekend, many of us will gather in the community to celebrate Juneteenth, freedom day—a truth-telling reminder of our nation’s history and founding, and also of what is possible.
When my enslaved ancestors began the work of abolition, many considered the goal of freedom an improbable or impossible one.
But because of their imaginations and sacrifice, it did happen.
Because of them, I am. Because of them I know anything is possible.
Another world is possible. One where we put people over profits, joy over trauma, freedom over fear. A world where healthcare and housing are a human right.
And where Black boy joy is a rite of passage, and Black men grow old. I want to live in that world.
There is no deficit of resource in our country, only a deficit of imagination, empathy and political will.
In 1968, Dr. King gave us the call to action to remain awake in the midst of a revolution.
In 2023, there are dark, draconian forces at work that want to lull us into a permanent sleep state with their false truths, fear mongering and hate.
They have enlisted accomplices in their extremist agenda and the march towards fascism and authoritarianism. From school committees to City Hall and state houses. From the lower courts to the Supreme Court and all the way to the halls of Congress.
This is the revolution that we remain in the midst of.
Beloved, stay awake. And someday, we’ll all be free.