Rev. Al Sharpton told more than 300 people at Burlington's Unitarian Universalist church yesterday that the fight for justice that marked the life of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. is far from over.
Sharpton called on attendees to honor King's legacy by continuing the fight for justice and equality and to not just fight battles they know they can win, but battles that are right.
"You cannot celebrate Dr. King without addressing that which will make you uncomfortable," said Sharpton. "That may mean you are going to lose friends; that may mean you are going to take stands that others don't agree, that may even mean you got to talk for eight hours in the U.S. Senate," noted Sharpton in a nod to U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who attended the celebration and received one of two MLK Community Service Awards.
King, Sharpton added, not only fought against racism, but political segregation. "Political segregation is that you're supposed to stay in your spot," he noted. "If you deal with women's rights, just stay there. If you deal with black rights — stay there."
King, on the other hand, never solely focused on civil rights and segregation. He also spoke out in favor of economic injustice, labor rights, and against the Vietnam War — issues that lost him support, both politically and financially, among many white, northern liberals.
"He understood that you cannot limit justice and the quest for freedom, and you cannot be intoxicated by the people who praise you and pat you on the back," said Sharpton. "You cannot open the door of freedom and shut it after you walk through."
To emulate King, Sharpton urged the crowd to think hard about their purpose in life and to dedicate themselves to fighting for improving the world around them and making it more just.
"Define what it is that you are doing. Who are you and where do you fit in, because many of us compromise, because we want comfort again, or maintain relationships, and popularity and access," said Sharpton. "But, none of that will matter after you leave this earth. There is a reason that 42 years after his death, the world remembers him — because he stood for something. And he never compromised himself for whomever held temporary office or wrote a check that would bounce in the bank of morality."
Known for his racial activism and at times bombastic and antagonistic tone, Sharpton seems to have mellowed over time. Even Sharpton noted that people need to own up to their role in creating the atmosphere that allows public officials, and private citizens, to become targets of hatred and violence.
At one point, Sharpton said everyone on the public stage needs to be careful of the words they speak — not just in the wake of the shootings in Arizona. He admitted to making insensitive comments in the past that may have indirectly led to people getting hurt or hurting others.
"What has happened that a nine-year-old girl is in danger just for showing up to meet her congresswoman?" asked Sharpton.
Regardless of whether the words public officials say directly, or indirectly, lead to violence, those leaders can't turn around and say, "It's not my fault."
The celebration also included a performance by the Abundant Life Gospel Choir from Montreal and this year’s Martin Luther King Community Service Awards. Receiving awards were U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who has been a fixture at the annual event, as well as Evelyn and Modisane Kwanza, who are both active in the African-American Church, New Alpha Missionary Baptist Church and the African American community.
The annual event is organized by Patrick Brown and the Burlington Multicultural Resource Center. Previous speakers at the event have included Desmond Tutu and Anita Hill.
After receiving his award, Sanders spoke briefly before introducing Sharpton.
"Dr. King was the outstanding political and moral hero of my lifetime and was one of the greatest heroes of our country," said Sanders. "He was not just a black leader, but he was a great American leader who happened to be black."
Sanders also called King a "revolutionary" and a man who "had the courage to stand up and wish for a better world."
Photos by Max Totten