The following are remarks as delivered by Rep. Vargas in 2017 at an MLK event hosted by the UU Church of Haverhill and the Cavalry Baptist Church of Haverhill. He was a city councilor at the time.
Good morning. It is a real pleasure to be in your presence today. I feel privileged to be able to speak to you at an event that commemorates a man who changed the world — a man who told me I could dream big while I attended our alma-mater of Boston University — a man who’s legacy continues to inspire and empower millions of Americans — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
MORE ON MLK - WHY WE CELEBRATE HIS DAY
Only two other people in American history have received the honor of a federally recognized holiday — George Washington and Christopher Columbus. Since Columbus was born abroad and Washington born in colonial Virginia (before the United States existed)— Dr. King is the only native born U.S. citizen that has a nationally recognized holiday.
And, I can’t think of anyone more deserving.
His civil rights action got its start at the local level, after the events that occurred in Montgomery, Alabama on December 1,1955. The secretary of the local NAACP chapter, Rosa Parks, refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery bus. She was arrested and fined.
The bravery of Rosa Parks caused a group of local leaders to elect a 26-year-old pastor of Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Martin Luther King Jr., as the president of the Montgomery Improvement Association — the organization which would lead what is regarded as the first large-scale protest against segregation in U.S. history. African Americans made up 75% of Montgomery’s bus riders — so for 381 days, Dr. King led a movement that would cripple the finances of the bus system. They walked to work, church, and took taxis driven by African Americans when needed.
Finally, a Montgomery federal court ruled that segregated seating on buses violated the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the decision — After 381 days of non-violent protest, Montgomery’s buses were integrated and the boycott ended.
Montgomery was just the beginning for Dr. King. Ultimately, the courageous acts at the local level went on to transform a nation. He was arrested 29 times, endured persecution, responded to provocation with non-violence, and ultimately payed the ultimate price for his persistence and leadership.
Through the power of the pen, civil disobedience, and love, Dr. King played a momentous role in ending legal segregation, as well as the creation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
We must recognize and honor these great feats. While we are cognizant of the fact that perhaps we have not yet reached the mountain top — it’s important to pause and pay our respects for those who did their part — struggling in the streets, in the courts, and in public spaces — often risking their lives because they believed in the potential of the coming generation’s ideals and values, versus the realities and constraints of their era. We cannot let them down. It is now our time to pick up the baton, continue to struggle, and believe in the promise that America’s best days are yet to come.
This will not be a routine MLK day. It comes at a time where many argue that we’ve taken 10 steps backwards. A time where some are convinced we live in a post-racial America, while others fight for the right of a young black man to walk down the street in hoodie — a time when some blame immigrants for all our problems, while others fight for the respect and decency immigrants deserve. It is a time where it seems east to think that the forces dividing us are yanking harder than the ones binding us together.
NOT AS DIVIDED AS OUR TIMES SUGGEST
But, let us remember that — yes America is a nation where the tragedies of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Sandra Bland are all too common — but America is also a nation that twice elected a black man to the highest office in the land. Haverhill is a city where I experienced racism growing up, but Haverhill is also a city that elected a 22 year old Latino in his first bid for public office.
We are not as divided as our times suggest.
YET WE HAVE SOME CONCRETE ISSUES TO ADDRESS
However, we cannot turn a blind eye. We have yet to reach the mountain top:
African Americans and Latinos make up about 25% of the U.S. population — yet 60% of the U.S. prison population is comprised of African Americans and Latinos
We know we have not reached the mountain top, when the quality of education for our children depends on the zip-code we’re able to afford to live in
And — we certainly know we haven’t gotten there yet when the nominee for Attorney General — the person to ensure justice — is a man who believed the KKK is “OK until I found out they smoked pot.” A man who — and I have to laugh at this one — a man who said — “Fundamentally, almost no one coming from the Dominican Republic to the United States is coming here because they have a provable skill that would benefit us.” — I really wish he could have coffee with my grandmother.
It’s clear though — we’ve got some work to do. Some healing and soul-searching. Or as Congressman John Lewis put it —“you must find a way to get in the way and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”
Luckily MLK day affords us the opportunity to reflect, take action, and ponder upon how to best address the realities of our time. 2017 is a year where we will be wise to heed the words of the Baptist Minister and Civil Rights hero we are honoring today.
THE MANNER TO ADDRESS THEM
In my own reflection, I find myself in a constant struggle to identify the roles of patience and empathy vs. urgency and firmness.
I often tell my fiancee, Rikelma, that our job is to exhibit patience, empathy and grace in the face of ignorance and intolerance. I wrap myself in an approach that embodies MLK’s message:
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”
But the reality is, many of us can afford to be patient. We are privileged enough to take the “let’s chip away at it” approach. There is some power in gradualism — but every year, every month, every hour, people slip through the cracks of gradualism.
While he preached compassion and empathy, Dr. King also pushed for a sense of urgency. In his iconic I Have a Dream speech, he stated:
“We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.” [END QUOTE]
With this in mind, I’ve coalesced these overarching forces of love and urgency — Let us love urgently.
And, in our urgency to love - let us remember that Dr. King’s movement took off locally — in the streets of Montgomery, Alabama.
In the city of Haverhill, I see this unconditional love. I see it in this room. I see it in the neighborhood groups that have organized in the past year. I see it in Urban Kindness and their persistence to transform the Mt. Washington neighborhood. I see the urgency to love in our food pantries. I see it at Emmaus’ homeless shelter. I see the urgency to love in the eyes of teachers in our public schools. I see it in the hearts of volunteers from groups like Team Haverhill, who perform the good works without fanfare.
We must continue to strive for Dr. King’s vision of a Beloved Community — justice not for solely one oppressed group, but justice for all people.
In many ways, Haverhill is a microcosm of the larger discussion we are having nationally. Our demographic shifts and economic disparities reflect the national narrative. If we can get it right in Haverhill — if we can lead with our urgency to love — we can set an example regionally, and show the entire country how to achieve a more perfect union.
Thank you. God Bless you.