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Indiana State Rep. Vernon G. Smith honors Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in annual address

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Rep. Vernon G. Smith (D-Gary) delivered remarks honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Thursday, January 12, at the Indiana Statehouse.

Smith explained the importance of reflecting on the life, legacy and work of Dr. King as Americans observe a national holiday in his honor on Monday, January 16.

“The late Dr. Martin Luther King, the drum major for justice, just wanted right to trump evil,” Smith said during his remarks. “With his abiding faith in America, he wanted this nation to rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.’ I, too, am America.”

Smith was granted a special privilege by the Speaker of the House to present his resolution, co-authored by members of the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus and Rep. Becky Cash (R-Zionsville), honoring Dr. King. Below are his prepared remarks:

Mr. Speaker and members of the House:

On Monday we will be in recess as the state and the nation honors the memory and works of one who has become known as a drum major for justice. What is so important about the life of Dr. Martin Luther King that we must stop doing the work of the people? In recognition of this national day of reflection, today I ask you to pause as I attempt to give meaning to this annual day of recess. I am humbled that the various speakers of the House have afforded me this opportunity for now 33 years. You, my distinguished colleagues, have been patient in listening to me. I know with the speaking ability of all the House members, the eloquence of language that all of you possess, anyone of you could do what I have done for 32 previous years and what I am doing today. Thank you for annually giving me the privilege of delivering this Dr. Martin Luther King memorial address. I am indeed grateful.

As I stand here today my heart is saddened by the unthinkable violence across these United States that has occurred since we last observed this holiday. On Monday we celebrate the life and contributions of a man of peace. It is obvious that his message of non-violence still needs to be heard and moreso become embedded in our hearts, our minds and in our actions. I ask, will it take more acts of violence, more needless bloodshed, more chaos, more tragedies, more unleashed hate to cause us to address this issue in our nation and end this senseless assault on life and liberty? May I focus your attention on Matthew 12: 25, which reads: “Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, ‘every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand.” In Mark 3:25, the apostle Mark quotes Jesus differently. Mark notes the words of Jesus thusly: “If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.” Earlier in Matthew 12, Jesus revealed his authority by healing a man’s shriveled hand on the Sabbath. This act of compassion on a Sabbath prompted the Pharisees to plot ways to kill Jesus.

Then they find out Jesus set someone free from their demon possession, and people are asking if he’s the messiah. Upon hearing about this new miracle, they accused Jesus of being in league with Satan. The Pharisees, who were already in the middle of in devising a plot to kill Jesus, felt that this latest healing posed the ideal time to level an accusation against him. If they could challenge his identity and claim he was working with Satan, they could charge him with a crime. The crime they hoped to level against him was sorcery, which was punishable by death. They said Jesus was demon-possessed and that his power came through an alliance with Satan. The Pharisees desired to discredit Jesus’s identity and attribute his power to Satan. Jesus summoned his accusers and responded to their illogical accusations with three arguments. One, that Satan would be working against himself. Two, that their own Jewish exorcists claimed to use God’s power. Three, that Jesus was able to go into Satan’s kingdom and walk away with spoils of victory. Matthew 12:25 is Jesus’s response to the Pharisees: “Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, ‘every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand.’” “A house divided cannot stand” recalls Abraham Lincoln to mind and his famous speech of 1858. On June 16, 1858 more than 1,000 delegates met in the Springfield, Illinois Statehouse for the Republican state convention.

At 5:00 p.m. they chose Abraham Lincoln as their candidate for the U.S. Senate, running against Democrat Stephen A. Douglas. At 8:00 p.m. Lincoln delivered this address to his Republican colleagues in the Hall of Representatives. If the U.S. wanted to be a free country, he argued, it had to act now before it was too late. Lincoln’s saying, “no, there is no compromise,” literally meant, “you’ve got to be on one side or the other.” In effect, he said, “I’m on the side of freedom and Douglas … is on the side of slavery.” To quote him, he said: “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the union to be dissolved. I do not expect the house to fall, but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.”

Lincoln’s revelation supported by the words of Jesus fell on some deft ears. It was in the month of April. It was the 12th day. It was in the year of 1861 at 4:30 a.m. that Confederate troops fired on Fort Sumter in South Carolina’s Charleston harbor. Less than 34 hours later, Union forces surrendered. This event marked the beginning of the Civil War. America was a country divided by uncompromising differences between the free and slave states over the power of the national government to prohibit slavery in the territories that had not yet become states. The civil war confirmed the single political entity of the United States, led to freedom for more than four million enslaved Americans, established a more powerful and centralized federal government, and laid the foundation for America’s emergence as a world power in the 20th century.

But here we go again. We are a nation with the disease I call SOS, Stuck On Stupid. Political analysists and researchers assert that Americans are less unified today than 40 years ago. There are those who argue that the country is more politically divided now than it was during the Civil War period. Not only is there less collaboration and mutual understanding between Democrats and Republicans, but members of both political parties increasingly view each other in an extremely negative way. It’s been a couple years since America experienced one of its most divisive elections in decades—an election that divided this great country. Although President Joe Biden has called for unity, recent data from the USC Polarization Index has shown political polarization remains as bad today as it was two years ago. Unaddressed, will we experience another civil war.

The January 6th attack on the Capitol troubled my mind and spirit. I felt like a hole was in my heart as I watched the event unfolding on television. Normally one to repel depression, I became depressed. To me, America, with all of its problems, is the greatest country on this planet. Led to pray more fervently for this country, I wondered, “Are we moving towards the end of this great experiences in democracy?”

You see, there was a time when I did not have patriotic love for America. Certainly not to the level as I do now. During the Civil Rights Era, I recall just moving my lips instead of saying the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag.

As I have traveled to many countries, having placed my feet on five continents, I have felt the blessings of an Almighty God, a God who took a kinky-hair, often-snotty-nose, patched-knee kid growing up in the ghetto of Gary, Indiana. The last of 10 children wearing hand-me-down clothing from six older brothers and blessed him to see a little of this beautiful and vast planet called Earth. As a child studying geography and history at Froebel School, I never dreamed I would be blessed to see some of the places I read about. I feel indeed blessed. I have seen some beautiful places, some marvelous sights, but I have come to realize that there is no place like America. Often I have recalled my mother’s words. I was a young child and my mother had just come home from one of her many trips abroad, and she said, “When I got off the plane in New York, I felt like kissing the ground.” I said to her, what do you mean kiss the ground? I found the thought of me placing my lips on the ground deplorable. She explained to me that what she had said was figurative of the emotion she felt as she explained she was just so happy, so elated to be back in the United States. With my travels I now understand her expression. You see, America is more important than Biden or Trump. It is our  homeland. Is it is the home of the free. It is the cradle of democracy. It is my country, your country, our country and it must be preserved.

“I, Too, Sing America” captures my thoughts and what Martin Luther King wanted. He wanted African Americans to be invited to the table of liberty.

In the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, a document that I believe is one of the greatest documents ever written, it states that all men have the rights of “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The Founding Fathers established this country of pillars of tolerance, liberty and equality, not divisiveness. Dr. King understood this and we, as American citizens, must strive to protect these rights today for everyone.

What Dr. King was saying was “I, too, am America. And I, too, should be afforded the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And I, too, want to stand on the pillar of equality. And not just me, but also all of my people, the total African American population.”

The late Dr. Martin Luther King, the drum major for justice, just wanted right to trump evil. With his abiding faith in America, he wanted this nation to rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.” I, too, am America.

He wanted his four little children to be able to live in this nation and not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. He wanted sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners to be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I, too, am America.

He wanted the state of Alabama, whose governor’s lips dripped with the words of interposition and nullification, to be transformed in a situation where little Black boys and Black girls will be able to join hands with little white boy and white girls, and walk together as sisters and brothers. I, too, am America.

He wanted the Negro to be truly free. He wanted to break the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. He wanted to end the exile of the Negro in his own homeland. He wanted there to be one America, one land of the brave and home of the free. He desired a more perfect union. Isn’t that what our founders wanted, a more perfect union?

You ask: how bad did he want it? He wanted it bad enough to continue the struggle even though he was stabbed. How bad did he want it? Bad enough to continue the struggle even though there were bomb threats. How bad did he want it? Bad enough to continue the struggle even though his fellow clergymen turned on him. How bad did he want it? Even though he saw his impending death, bad enough to die for his dream.

So, on April 4th in Memphis, someone said: “Kill the dreamer, and you kill the dream.” But, although I have said this all of the 20 years I have had the honor of being in this body of legislators, I can truthfully, honestly say without any reservations that the dream lives.

So, on Monday, we celebrate a national holiday in memory of one of America’s fallen leaders. A stone which was rejected has become one of the chief cornerstones of this nation.

As I close, may I direct your attention to the Book of Hosea 14:9, which reads: “Who is wise? Let him understand these things. Who is prudent? Let him know them. For the ways of the Lord are right; the righteous walk in them, but transgressors stumble in them.”

The prophet Joel in Chapter 1, verses 2 and 3 adds: “Hear this, you elders, and give ear, all you inhabitants of the land! Has anything like this happened in your days, or in the days of your fathers? Tell your children about it, let your children tell their children, and their children another generation.”

I humbly and truly thank you for your patience and attention. I ask for your support of this resolution offered by all of the members of the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus and Rep. Becky Cash.

On Monday, let’s begin to widen the circle of love. Let us not just look at the Statue of Liberty which stands in the New York harbor, but to the real statue of liberty, the cross on Calvary. Christ took off his robe of glory, his crown of glory and stepped through 43 generations.

He loved us enough to die for us. King also loved us enough to die for us. He knew his death was pending. On Monday, let’s begin to widen the circle of love.

We cannot let the forces that divide us be stronger than the forces that unite us.

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