King’s lessons still need to be learned, civic leaders say

Printed from:

BOSTON – Boston civic and civil rights leaders of many stripes gathered Monday morning to commemorate the life and work of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., with many suggesting that the Baptist minister would be disappointed with today’s politics.

From Gov. Charlie Baker and Mayor Marty Walsh to Massachusetts Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, Bay State political leaders contributed thoughts on King’s legacy at the 46th annual event, hosted by Union United Methodist Church in the South End and St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church in Roxbury at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. In 1970, a group of women in the two churches hosted the first event, a breakfast meeting, in their fellowship halls two years after the Nobel Peace Prize winner was shot down in Memphis, Tennessee.

“I as much as anyone living could see that some of the rhetoric, tone deafness and hostility that pass today for brilliant and timely leadership, as little more than a throwback to the demagoguery of the ‘50s and ‘60s in Alabama and Mississippi,” said Ruth Simmons, a former Brown University president and the event’s keynote speaker. She talked about why she renewed her belief in celebrating King during a time of so much obvious hypocrisy.

Simmons, the first African-American to lead an Ivy League school, spoke about growing up as the daughter of a sharecropper in a racially segregated town in Texas, grappling with a society  that seemed to be turned against her.

She didn’t “have any way to imagine” a different world outside of the discrimination and economic disparity she witnessed in Texas, Simmons said. King became “the most inspirational leader of my childhood, but also the most healing and unifying American leader during a time when I was trying desperately, I mean desperately, to understand how to love my country.”

“For millions like me, there was no way to envision a way forward. Martin Luther King made it possible to see a different way,” she said. “He deserves our praise and our honor.”

The Hub was likely a city close to King’s heart, state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz (D-Boston) pointed out. He received a Ph.D from Boston University, and met his wife, Coretta Scott King, here. But, Chang-Diaz added, he would likely be dismayed to learn that the city tops the nation in terms of income inequality.

“You must ask yourselves today, what can you do to pull the organizations and groups you belong to – the corporations, the nonprofits, the polities, the neighborhoods you belong to – to be agents of change in this unjust reality,” Chang-Diaz said.

Markey agreed. King’s legacy would be best-served by significant changes at the federal level, the Malden Democrat said, to loud and frequent applause. He pointed to the need for tougher gun controls, reduced income inequality and criminal justice reform, while acknowledging the importance of the “Black Lives Matter” movement.

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, United Methodist Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar and Episcopal Bishop Gayle Harris also spoke about King’s legacy at the event.

Contact Kara Bettis at [email protected] or on Twitter @karabettis.