As another Black History Month comes to a close, we’re taking a moment to remember this speech made by one of our board members, Nataki Garrett. Nataki, a longtime theater professional and an ardent supporter and prolific fundraiser for the arts, reflects on the many speeches made by Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and how infrequently he addressed the future when making them.
Maybe, she muses, this reluctance came from a desire to focus his energies on fixing injustices and enacting positive changes in the present, rather than in the future. After all, doesn’t one have to happen before the other? Nataki’s words make a case for why her audience of theater insiders should take a queue from Dr. King, but they’re equally applicable to our hospitality industry professionals and partners and anyone else interested in spearheading tangible change not just for tomorrow, but today.
Nataki Garrett – Keynote speech – MLK Celebration at Ashland Armory, January 20, 2020
(Transcript of video above)
In preparation for this speech, I searched the internet to see how many times Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King used the word “future” in his speeches or writings. I have been thinking and talking about the future a lot lately. Thinking about the world that my 1 year old baby niece Noa will inherit and what I need to do to make sure its worthy of how special she is. I’ve been thinking about the future of this country and whether or not the country as we know it will survive and evolve so that the babies of today to grow up with freedoms I long to experience. I think about the future of the American theater and if it will still be relevant and to whom and why? I think about the future, because I am driven by the mandate, that I must be active in making sure there is one. That is what is expected of me.
Dr. King rarely if ever speaks the word “future” in is speeches or writings unless it is used to warn someone of the damning that will occur if they don’t change. Yet we all live as if he worked and sacrificed to ensure we would have a future. We spend this special day, this hard fought for day, this day of remembering his ultimate sacrifice, working, celebrating and or shopping as if his sacrifice was a part of some great plan he had – to give us this day. We listen to the Mountain Top speech and imagine he was seeing into the future. A future that did not include himself.
When my father was working for Student NonViolent Coordinating Committee also known as SNCC he told me when we was a young man he knew he could die a young man. That at any given moment he could die because he was trying to help register people to vote in Mississippi and Alabama. He tells me from his experience In Those days the Klan was a different kind of brazen. Not dressed up in suits, not called white nationalists marching around a confederate statue with tiki torches. They showed up at bus depots and bashed in the faces of young white women and the heads of young black and white women and men from Philadelphia to Los Angeles for daring cross the Mason Dixon, together – with their talk of equality. I met a man a while back – a white guy in his 70’s? he was my Lyft driver. He told me he had had his head bashed with a club and his scull fractured when his “freedom” bus, coming from Los Angeles pulled into a depot in rural Louisiana and was greeted by a mob of angry white people with clubs and bats at the ready. Despite the warning and the training, he said he never believed he could be killed for what he was doing or he never would’ve done it. When I asked why he got on the bus he said it was too important – it was something he knew he must do. He also joked that he was following a girl. The klan and the white citizens counsels across the south made it clear that they were willing to hurt, maim or kill any black person who tried to vote or any other person worked to help someone else vote. All throughout the civil rights movement, people risked their lives to protest against the laws that kept them as second class citizens. Simply
walking up to the registrar to ask for a registration card could get you lynched in the rural areas. It could get you assassinated in your driveway in the city. Gathering to talk about the possibility of trying to vote could get your house or church bombed and your children murdered. My father didn’t have the luxury of disbelief. He was working to eradicate the apartheid like system that affected his life and the lives of his family members. Imagine being twenty something and thinking “ok, I can die for this”. That sounds pretty immediate to me. The immediacy of how limited the choices were between fighting for freedom and living free. If living free for a moment meant dying in the immediate next moment then my father, born in Dallas raised in Watts, he was ready.
So why didn’t Dr. King speak to the future. Perhaps, it was because the work that was being done at the time was about the present. What if thinking about the future, was too far ahead. If we can’t make sure the present is free then how do we make sure the future will be free. And what was the present? We like to tell the story of the civil rights movement as if it was a magical time when people marched and yelled protest slogans and sang protest songs from jail cells. We conflate the memory of all that they were fighting for. And we skip the mundanities of what the fight freedom and equity was about. Freedom is being able to walk down the street from church on a Sunday and not be gang raped by your neighbors like Mrs. Recy Taylor. Freedom is not having to prove your innocence from a crime you were no where near when it was committed like Walter MacMillian. Freedom is not being set up from your first day of school to be incarcerated because you are a black child. Freedom is walking home from a bar in this town and knowing you will make it home. Freedom is food, clothing and shelter when you don’t have it. It’s the ability to read words off of a page because you have literacy. It is access to a job, a good job that pays the rent and the bills. It is about having secure housing. It is as simple as knowing you can live in your body and know that it is seen as fully human. Not an anomaly, or something to be objectified, fetishized or ostracized. You can give your name without being othered “what an odd name”. or “that’s unusual” because to be clear, all names are unusual or usual somewhere in the world. Freedom is knowing you can walk into a theater and watch a play and not be smacked by your neighbor because you dared to laugh out loud or sing the song you’ve known since your childhood. Freedom is immediate because freedom is now. It is immediate because it is life.
So what if Doctor King didn’t see himself as a martyr like some see him now? What does that say about his life and what he fought for. How does it change your perception, when you read his letters from a Birmingham jail or listen to his speeches. I like imaging that the way he loved his children and family was immediate. Can you imagine kissing your child at night knowing you would have to die for them to be free? Nah, I like to imagine Dr. King kissing his children at night with the full belief that he was fighting, so that the next time he kissed them it would be
in their full freedom., I believe he hugged his children with the dream that in the morning they would wake up in a better world in which they could live in their full dynamic complexities without ever having to wonder if they will be seen as a criminal or now die unarmed at the hands of a peace officer or have a purse clutched tighter at the sight of them or otherwise be singled out or othered or ostracized or forced to carry the short sighted bias of so many. And I believe Dr. King wanted that change to be immediate so that he could see their faces and know that the joy of the moment could no longer be dampened because of Jim Crow, poll-tax, discrimination or ambivalence.
I like to believe Dr. King wanted to live and wanted to experience the world that he described so famously in his speeches. I believe that Dr. King led others though boycotts, beatings, Marches, fire hoses and Jail because he wanted to walk amongst us in the light of the new day. I believe he longed to see his children and your children moving beyond the limitations of racism, bias, sexism and ableism. I believe he was fighting to be here when poverty was eradicated or at least no longer criminalized. Or when despair, which often shows up as substance abuse, was no longer policed and instead its root causes where treated. I dream that Dr. King believed he was leading American up a road to JUSTICE, EQUITY, DIVERSITY, INCLUSION, EQUALITY and PEACE and in which all religions, heritage, culture, nationalities are welcomed to cross our borders. I dream that Dr King believed that. by now the intersections between us would have been forged and fortified. When people not only claimed to see ones color or difference from themselves but also knew to honor those differences and were grateful for the opportunity to connect through diversity. And I believe he was assassinated because he wanted to help change the course of a nation chaotically careening towards a time that looks a lot like now.
We began last year with the photos of children as young as 2 months old as they were being separated from their parents at our southern border and forced to live in detention. Children live in detention across America. But these children came with their parents to seek a better life and instead were ripped from the arms of their loved ones and placed in tents and on cement floors under aluminum blankets en masse. More than 5400, they think, so far. Children had their birthdays, holidays and first periods in cages and tents and finished out the new year in those conditions and some will never be reunited with their families. Those children are our future. By the way,Trans women are still being murdered at an alarming rate. Hundreds of Black women and children have gone missing across the country, and Native women are 5 times more likely than any other woman to be murdered in this country, and suicide is the leading cause of death amongst young people especially gay youth. This is 2020. Right now a little under 10000 people are homeless in the state of Oregon, a little under 100K in California.
And over 500K nationwide live homeless. Most major cities have- lots – of tent communities that resemble the Hoovervilles of the Depression. The same Hoovervilles that many of your parents and my grandparents experienced in their youth and fought to eradicate in their time. Last week 4 women, all mothers were forcibly evicted from their home in oakland, ca. Law enforcement deployed, riot gear and a small tank to remove 4 women and their children from a home, onto the street. We live in a country where people believe that wealth is a sign of intelligence and poverty is a sign of bad choices. Where fires burn across the world because of excuseless excesses we refuse to eliminate from our way of life. Where we still spend more on war than we do on feeding programs. Your loved ones can be killed protesting a rally against white nationalism at the hands of the white suprematist and your president will say that there are bad people on both sides. We are not in Dr. King’s dream.
Dr. King died just as he was starting a new campaign that was to be focused on poverty. There are some who say that he was assassinated because he was planning on using his work to connect and support poor people of all races. A Social Justice campaign where people worked together to eradicate poverty. Yes I said social justice – which is a word that some folks are allergic to. But it remains the only word we can use to describe the work that must be done. The work we must do so that we can also live in a world were the work is no longer needed. Some of you who marched in Peoples Park in Berkeley or who joined students for a Democratic society in college know what I mean. You fought to live in a country in which you would see civil rights legislation passing, voting rights passed, abortion rights and title IV enacted. You marched and shouted against the Vietnam war and against nuclear arms and for labor rights and free speech. Your generation taught my generation that we were all on the way to the promised land that Dr. King described for us. And you know more than I do that work still needs to be done if we are going to create that promise. And I will work to create it, because I want my baby niece, Noa, to live in that world. I want to see her face and experience her joy in that world. I do not accept – that I cannot live in that world with her and neither should you. We have what we need make that world a reality. And I know we can do it because – we must. Like my twenty something year old father, we must, like the mothers and fathers who crossed our southern border to give their children a better life, we must. Like the Lyft driver – we must, and like Dr. King, we must. WE MUST build a brighter present, before we can build towards a better future.
So today, lets be like Dr. King. Let’s speak the present we will work to bring into existence. Then let’s get our tools, roll up our sleeves and begin the work. Don’t look to your neighbor to reverse climate change, look at yourself. Don’t sit by when you see someone being accosted because of their race, age, class or color – get in the middle of it. Don’t allow your ignorance of
what to do, stop you from deepening your knowledge and building your toolbox – GET EDUCATED. Don’t be quiet when someone assaults another in the theater, Interrupt the policing of the youth in our theaters or they wont return. Send your dollars to support the causes you believe in. You may have marched with your sisters on Sunday but what will you do today to make it matter. Don’t allow cynicism to keep you silent, fearful and passive. GET UP AND GET TO WORK.
The Future waits for our action today. Be present and build the promise we all deserve. Build the present Reverend Dr. Martin Luther Ling Jr dreamed we would have and dreamed he would experience had he survived. Build the Promise today so we can live the promise tomorrow. Thank you.