BREMERTON — At the 23rd annual celebration of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, speakers stressed that Americans today are, in the words of Dr. King, “confronted with the fierce urgency of now.”
This year’s theme of the celebration, Jan. 16 at the Kitsap County Fairgrounds, was simply “Why We Can’t Wait,” and speakers reminded the audience that the time to affect change for the better is right now.
“The commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s prodigious life and the recommitment it symbolizes is particularly momentous in the face of the presidential inauguration that offers a retrenchment for the civil rights gains for which he fought,” said Cheryl Nuñez, vice president for equity and inclusion at Olympic College. “Standing at the precipice of change, we are, to borrow from (King’s) words, ‘confronted with the fierce urgency of now.’ ”
Nuñez went on to quote King from his last book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” and pointed out that the world currently is in chaos: political instability in the Middle East, refugee crises, military provocations, climate change, the mass murder of LGBTQ+ people at a nightclub in Orlando and nine black church members in Charleston, the documented police violence against African American people, and so much more. “All seem like terrifying doomsday omens,” Nuñez said.
“Against the stark reality of the chaos we face today, Dr. King’s oft-referenced beloved community invokes a prophetic vision of a world bound together in an inescapable network of mutuality,” Nuñez said, “intolerant of the triple evils of poverty, racism and militarism.
“Today, we must choose between the rot of individualism and the redemption of mutuality,” she added. “We must build a multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-generational movement broad enough to link arms across the world. And, in the face of setbacks, we must draw upon the power of righteous resistance and love. We must, above all, take our strength from the movements of civil and human rights, on which shoulders we are standing today.”
Rosalund Jenkins, former executive director of the state Commission on African-American Affairs, was the keynote speaker at the celebration. Jenkins spoke of the need for people to step forward and work hard for the change they wish to see in the world.
“You need to want something,” Jenkins said. “You need to want something to be better than it is now. More just. More whole. More honest. More fair. And then, you have to find some neighbors to help you go about doing it.”
Jenkins once formed a commission of community members to change the “brute force” police laws in Washington state. Despite starting as a small group, she said they grew quickly in number and received bipartisan help from Washington’s elected officials, until ultimately, the laws that she said were some of the most egregious in the country were changed for the better.
“That’s why you’ve got to do what you can do,” she said. “If you see something that’s not right, you do something about it. You say something. You step forward.”
Tracy Flood, president of the NAACP Bremerton, reiterated that the day’s theme really “is a call to action, to move beyond the seats.”
“Whether you’re committed to the NAACP, the YWCA, the ACLU, whether you’re working on poverty issues, homelessness, healthcare or human trafficking, find your passion,” Flood said. “Find your passion and commit to it. Because Dr. King said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ So I ask you … are you fired up and ready to go?”
Rev. Freda Cash, pastor of Ebenezer A.M.E. Church, was the day’s final speaker.
“You’ve heard all the statistics and the disparities, the unequal opportunities, the chaotic systemic issues that continue to plague our country — all of which is why we cannot wait,” Cash said. “For it is all about the urgency of now. Do what you can do.”
She said that it’s “very tempting to look wistfully and nostalgically at the civil rights movement,” that people have told her many times how they wish they could get a million people together to march, to “make the ground shake with our numbers.”
“I would remind them, actually, it’s probably a good thing that we can’t, because that means there’s probably a lot of people who are comfortable,” she said. “There are a lot of people who are not experiencing a lot of racial/ethnic extreme duress right now … so to me, it’s a good thing that many people are comfortable.
“Yet, I put it to you: there’s still a discomfort for me. There’s still an uneasiness for me, because I worry. When people are under economic pressure, when there’s chaos, when there’s uncertainty, sometimes people acting in fear can turn to values that even they themselves wished they no longer felt in their hearts.”
Cash spoke of people who may have voted for Donald Trump for president despite believing “he’s a bad guy,” because they hoped “he’ll be ‘our’ bad guy.”
“Some people are willing to do bad if they think it will work out good for them,” Cash said. “Those are not the kinds of values, at this stage in the game, I want to hang on to … We want our values to lead, not our fears. We want our sense of fellowship and community and our highest hopes for this country to lead, not our worries about, ‘Am I going to lose the house? Can I get a bigger car next year? Can we take that vacation?’ Cause those kinds of concerns quite truly, given our history, they’re not worthy of us.
“We need some higher goals, goals that shine bright in the context of Dr. King.”
And so, Cash continued, people can’t wait for someone else to step forward to try and make the necessary changes to society. People need to step up themselves.
“It’s time to find an organization or start an organization or build up one that exists, and get busy doing things here locally that make this place more just, more attractive to businesspeople, make the schools better,” Cash said.
“Is it going to be easy? No. It’s going to take months, it’s going to take years, you’re going to have to go to 100 meetings, or 200 meetings or 300 meetings. You might have to make a thousand phone calls, send emails to 20,000-30,000 people. That might be what you have to do.”