Supervisor Ridley-Thomas delivered the keynote address Friday morning at the 41st Annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Brotherhood Breakfast, held at YMCA of Metropolitan Los Angeles. His full speech appears below:
I am honored to be here this morning as we pay tribute to the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I am also pleased to acknowledge the work of both Carl Ballton and Linda Griego who through their respective positions and associations seek to improve the quality of life for what Dr. King termed, “the beloved community.”
Let me also give appropriate acknowledgement to the YMCA of Metropolitan Los Angeles, its President, Alan Hostrup, and the Board of Directors, many of whom are here today.
The work of the YMCA adds value not only to those who participate in its various programs, but to the wider communities that it serves. Its work is underscored by the Christian values that the YMCA was founded on: trust, respect, responsibility, fairness, character, and civility. Inherent in those values is a universalism that can be applied in all contexts, regardless of religious tradition, age, ethnic background, race or experience.
The essence of Dr. King’s witness is embedded in the values of the YMCA. Dr. King was reared in the religious tradition by his mother and father. Yet while a student at Morehouse College, and later seminary, his worldview was shaped by the lessons of Gandhi, and, closer to home, Howard Thurman, and Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays. The intertwining of the values learned in the religious context, coupled with that of Thurman, Gandhi, and Mays, enabled Dr. King to take controversial stands on the important issues of his time as well as to espouse a principled opposition to the violence that was occurring on the streets of Birmingham and jungles of Vietnam.
Dr. King’s ethos led him to march his weary feet across the red soil clay of Georgia to fight for dignity. It led Dr. King to walk through the rainstorms in Alabama to encourage African-Americans to vote. His ethos led him to build a movement to fight slum conditions in Chicago and stand for equality in education. Dr. King’s range of vision and his wisdom was much broader than the parochial interests of segregated communities. He understood the interconnectedness of all humanity and the role that different movements have in the fight for social and economic justice.
Therefore, it was no coincidence that Dr. King emphasized the relationship between organized labor and civil rights. We are all familiar with the language articulated in the Declaration of Independence, specifically the statement that “all men are created equal” and that each individual is endowed with the rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Implicit in the meaning of both phrases is the notion of human dignity.
Dr. King wielded an understanding of those simple but mighty phrases. And so, on the steps of the Washington Monument, he spoke of his dream that the quality of life of all people would one day be equal. He spoke of justice and democracy; of brotherhood and the urgency of the moment.
Dr. King was not satisfied with seeing those who toiled in the factories day and night traveling to their resting place only to find themselves unable to feed their children. He was not satisfied with witnessing farm workers stoop low in the searing sun and not receive a livable wage. He was not satisfied with policies that benefited the rich over the poor. He was not satisfied with mediocrity and so he challenged us to view the interests of African-Americans and labor on one accord. I am here because of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In my work as a former teacher, an activist, and now as a public servant for over 20 years I have sought to champion that which will improve the lives of the least among us.
And so the question becomes, what does that mean?
It means focusing on unemployment not only by creating jobs in the Second Supervisorial District, but by ensuring that a significant proportion of local residents are hired for those good jobs.
It means making sure that the aptly named, new Martin Luther King, Jr. Hospital provides quality, competent heath care to the residents in south Los Angeles. It means ensuring that our children are literate and numerate by supporting the Children’s Defense Fund Freedom School initiative.
It means completing the work begun by Tom Bradley and Julian Dixon and making certain that we have light rail transportation in our community with the Expo Line and the Crenshaw-LAX line.
It means focusing on the issue of developmental disabilities, particularly autism, and the inequity and challenges that confront those who battle with that condition making it one of the new civil rights issues of our time.
And lastly, it is our moral imperative to address the manner in which we incarcerate juveniles and adults by providing them with quality education, mental health services, and jobs that enable them to live productive lives and successfully transition back into the community.
Our work continues.
Dr. King’s life is a testament to the fact that one individual can bring about catalytic change.
Although he believed that individuals possessed the capacity to make a difference through direct action; Dr. King demonstrated that mass participation is necessary to improve the body politic.
And so I am pleased that tomorrow, on the campus of the University of Southern California, we will celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the Empowerment Congress. The Empowerment Congress is a model founded on the principle that the sum of our collective wisdom and talents is greater than our individual reach.
We must raise up and empower a generation of leaders, committed to find solutions to the enormous challenges that confront us today. We need a new generation leaders who are agents of responsible, ethical and social transformation in their communities. Leaders who posture themselves as conduits of new ideas and innovation across a wide array of disciplines. Leaders who have the courage to change the tide. Leaders whose moral compass is oriented toward justice.
In closing, let me leave you with the following: Our work is not done. The songwriter states, “We who believe in freedom shall not rest.” I renew my commitment to be unyielding in the fight for equality and justice on every issue, large or small. “Let us march on until victory is won.”