Ijeoma Oluo to King County: To follow in MLK’s footsteps, stop failing communities of color
This celebration of the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. took place on January 10 at The Sanctuary in downtown Seattle. This is a transcript of Ijeoma Oluo's portion of the event.
"I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality."
That's the theme for today's event. And as someone who lives in this county and has lived in the greater Seattle area for 36 years, I've been reflecting on these words and what they mean to me here in this place and in this time.
But as I was trying to think of that, I just kept getting caught up on the invite that I got to speak here. I was invited to help celebrate the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebrate.
Celebrate is a very specific word. It is a word that is often used when I'm asked to speak in January and February about Dr. King, and yes, I am only asked to speak about Dr. King in January and February.
But in thinking of what it looks like to speak with truth and live in the love of the great Dr. King, 'celebrate' it not the word that comes to mind.
When 25 percent of my brothers and sisters live below the federal poverty level in this county, in an area with one of the highest costs of living in this country, 'celebrate' is not the word that comes to mind.
When black people make up 6 percent of our population and 44 percent of the population of our youth detention centers, 'celebrate' is not the word that comes to mind.
When Hispanic and Latino people make up 9 percent of our population and 19 percent of our youth detention center population 'celebrate' is not the word that comes to mind.
When Indigenous people make up less than 1 percent of our population and almost 6 percent of the population of our youth detention centers, 'celebrate' is not the word that comes to mind.
When the average black household in King County makes just 35,000 dollars a year while the average white household in King County makes over 75,000 dollars a year, 'celebrate' is not the word that comes to mind.
When 17 percent of Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders in King County who are expecting are lacking prenatal care, 'celebrate' is not the word that comes to mind.
When 9 percent of indigenous people and 8 percent of black people who are expecting in King County are lacking in prenatal care, 'celebrate' is not the word that comes to mind applause.
When the suspension and expulsion rate for black students in our schools is four times higher than white students, and two times higher for Latinos and Indigenous students than white students, 'celebrate' is not the word that comes to mind.
When I see budgets to build new youth detention that far outweigh our budgets to reduce youth detention, 'celebrate' is not the word that comes to mind.
When children of color make up one third of our child population, and over half of our population in foster care, 'celebrate' is not the word that comes to mind.
And as I watch friend after friend, community member after community member, be pushed out of their homes and away from the safety, security, and resources of their community by gentrification — further solidifying all of the frightening statistics I just gave, 'celebration' is not a word that comes to mind.
So no, as a county, as a society, as a country, I do not think we get to celebrate yet. I do not think Dr. King would celebrate yet. So perhaps there's another word, a word that I wish came up more often when I am asked to speak at these celebrations. Honor.
What does it look like to honor Dr. King? What does it look like to honor his words that were chosen for today? "I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality." I have given truth. Truth that does not care about your excuses. Truth does not care about your complications. Truth that says that for over 400 years, our people have been abused. For over 400 years our children have not been allowed to be children. Truth that says that this country and this county has failed and is failing its people of color every day in countless ways. This is a truth that cannot be argued, a truth that must be reckoned with and accounted for.
I'm sorry if I have ruined your celebration and this truth. But there's more to this quote, right? There is love. Where is the love? The unconditional love that Dr. King spoke of?
First, let me say that the unconditional love for Dr. King spoke of is the love that brings the truth here. It is the love that has me in front of a large group of people saying that I'm pretty sure a lot of people don't want to hear. A love that has me risking all of our comfort on this nice day to say what absolutely must be said. This is love for my family, love for my people, love for our history, love for our potential love for this great Pacific Northwest that I desperately want to love me back.
So what does it look like? For this county, to live in the unconditional love that Dr. King spoke of, it looks like truly engaging with communities of color where they are; investing in communities of color where they are.
It looks like honoring all of the ways in which despite all of the overwhelming odds against us we have survived and continue to survive.
It looks like supporting the work we are already doing instead of insisting that you know what is best for us.
It looks like honoring and protecting our communities of color as actual communities that need to be together and not dispersed to meet the desires of a vision of progress that has never included us.
It looks like holding our schools accountable for not seeing our children as children.
It looks like holding our police accountable for seeing our people as violent.
It looks like holding our judges and prosecutors accountable for seeing our people as irredeemable.
As and for each and every one of you, it looks like seeking out and targeting white supremacy in your meetings, your management structure, your ballots, your goals, your budgets.
There are so many ways to live and work in the love that Dr. King spoke of. There are so many ways in which you must. Because we cannot give back childhoods lost. We cannot put broken families back together. We cannot bring back lives lost.
Love is an action and you must act. This is what it looks like to honor Dr. King, and perhaps if we had done more to honor him over the years, I would feel more like celebrating today. I will say, to those of you in this audience who have been working every day, and I see you, often against your peers, against a system steeped in white supremacy, hose of you who have been working to make sure that those of us who don't have access are heard and are seen who are fighting for the humanity of our children, for the survival of our infants, for the safety of our communities and for the freedom of our people — Thank you. You are appreciated, even if it's not said enough.
Even if in this very speech, our ongoing emergency has caused me to focus on what is not being done instead of what you are doing, that is another thing that white supremacy has taken from us. But your work is necessary and I truly hope that others here today who are not on the same plane will listen, and ask what you are doing, and join you in your efforts, and will support you in the ways that you need to be supported to do the work that we need to survive.
I know that many of you are working towards a day where we will be able to celebrate together. I have to believe that one day we will be able to celebrate together, and I really hope maybe you'll invite me.
I hope that we can all come together today and start looking for ways in which we can make this a county and a community that we always like to believe it is, a county that lives in unarmed truth and has unconditional love for each and every one of us.
Washington state’s King County—originally named after former U.S. Vice President and slave owner William R. King—was renamed after MLK in 2005. The county honors its namesake’s life annually in a gathering of local leaders and residents.
The theme this year was a line from King’s 1964 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech: “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.”
Click the "play" button in the top right corner to hear Ijeoma Oluo's keynote address followed by Sharon Nyree Wiliams performing her piece "The Fierce Urgency of Now."
The full program included the following speakers and performers:
- Pamela Sterns, Chair King County Native American Leadership Council
- Michael Hepburn: Leading “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and “Yes We Can”
- Masters of Ceremony Matias Valenzuela and Rose Dotson
- King County Executive Dow Constantine
- Sharon Nyree Williams performing “Truth Is” and “The Fierce Urgency of Now.”
- King County Council member Larry Gossett
- Ijeoma Oluo, author of “So You Want to Talk About Race,” gave the keynote address
King County, WA MLK Celebration.mp3
Produced for the web by Brie Ripley