Address to Venezuela’s National Assembly in Honor of Dr. Martin Luther King

Reverend Jesse Jackson spoke before Venezuela's National Assembly during a special session to honor Dr. Martin Luther King's "I have a dream speech".

August 28, 2005

Let me express my sincere thanks to President Hugo Chavez, democratically elected leader of Venezuela, whose vision of inclusion and commitment to lifting the poor addresses the moral imperative of our time. I want to thank the religious leaders who likewise extended the invitation and met us so graciously at the airport last night.

I want to thank the members of the National Assembly for inviting me to this special session, and the government ministers.

And to the religious leaders and representatives of the Afro Venezuelan community with whom we share so much as people of African descent in the Western Hemisphere.

It is good to be in the land of Simon Bolivar, one of the great liberators of this hemisphere. He was presented with a gift – a portrait of George Washington – from General Lafayette, as an expression of the long standing US-Venezuelan/South American ties.

The roots of the revolution, led by Bolivar, were rooted hunger and poverty. The great battleground for the defense and expansion of freedom today, in the whole southern half of the globe, is that of the rising peoples’ seeking an end to tyranny and justice, exploitation, more than an end they seek a new beginning.

Today the widow of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, Coretta Scott King is in the hospital in Atlanta, Georgia. She suffered a mild heart attack and stroke last week. For all that she stands for, let us pray for her recovery. Let us stand together for a moment, and bow our heads in silent prayer.

This is a critical moment in the history of our hemisphere. North America and its relationship with its neighbors, nations emerging from the shackles of centuries of exploitation and tyranny.

Let me hasten to congratulate you on your Commission on the Prevention and Elimination of Racial Discrimination. In South Africa, under Nelson Mandela, they set up a Commission on Truth and Reconciliation. In America, former President Clinton set up a commission on race. All of these efforts, facing the pain of racial and religious scars, seeking reconciliation, have value.

Your focus on foreign debt, debt relief, free-trade and fair trade to overcome years of structural disorder, unnecessary military spending, land reform…these are some of the great themes of our time. They can change our world condition.

This date has particular meaning for us as I seek to share some of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s world view, and hopefully its avocation, can be of value to you, as you assume your position in the world’s leadership and your rightful place in the family of nations.

On this date August 28, 1955, Emmett Till – a young African American male – was lynched in Mississippi. He was accused of having whistled at a white woman. For that he had to pay for his life.

He was one in the long legacy of 5000 lynchings, most of which were faith based lynchings, conducted after church on Sundays with some twisted theological notion that God had blessed this demonic action. It was religion at its worst that conformed to the worst in the culture. It had no transformative power. It was not informed by Love, the commitment to justice tempered by mercy. This heinous act occurred a year after the U.S. Supreme Court had struck down legal apartheid, or racial segregation, established by our Courts in 1896, 31 years after the end of slavery, after 246 years of legal slavery.

A few months later, on December 1, 1955, reacting to the laws of apartheid and humiliation, Rosa Parks – an African American female – refused to obey the apartheid laws and go to the “back of the bus.” Her act of civil disobedience, for which she was willing to pay the price to end the rein of terror, she was arrested.

Out of that struggle Dr. Martin Luther King emerged and led an effective boycott that began to undermine the cost benefits of the U.S. apartheid system. That struggle began to bring down the walls and bring the oppressed self-confidence. It invigorated the struggle to end legal race supremacy. After mass mobilization, legal action, litigation, massive non-violent direct action, and martyrdom of courageous souls, two laws were passed to change the course of America and the world.

1) In 1964, an end to apartheid in public accommodations;

2) The right to vote signed August 6, 1965.

It was the turning point of three centuries of struggle, from 1619 to 1865, when African Americans were denied citizenship. You in Venezuela ended the system of slavery in 1854, eleven years before we in the U.S. We worked without wages; we were enslaved. We were the foundation of the nation’s wealth, an asset more valuable than land.

Then there was the Civil War. The Southern region – the Confederates – sought to establish an independent nation with the help of Britain and France. But they lost that war, but even so, today they remain in the battle of ideas.

Dr. King said,

“In the past in the civil rights movement we have been dealing with segregation and all of its humiliation. We’ve been dealing with a political problem of the denial of the right to vote. I think it is absolutely necessary now to deal massively and militantly with the economic problem. If this isn’t dealt with, we will continue to move as the Kerner Commission said, toward two societies: one white and one black, separate an unequal. So the grave problem facing us is the problem of economic deprivation, with the syndrome of bad housing and poor education and improper health facilities are all surrounding this basic problem.

“We are going to Washington to engage in non-violent direct action in order to call attention to this great problem of poverty and to demand that the government do something more than a token, something in a large manner to grapple with the economic problem.”

He was killed on that journey as he sought to help garbage workers in their quest for their right to organize and have livable wages and job security. It’s what I call the 4th stage of our struggle.

The first stage was to end slavery or colonialism. The second stage was to end apartheid or schemes of separation by race. The third stage was the right to vote. The fourth stage is access to capital, industry and technology, and a fair distribution of land.

Thus our struggle to be a more perfect union and a more perfect world continues.

The real genius of America is not that it is perfect, but rather that is have the perfect right to fight for the right. And that’s the real beauty of democracy at its best. Freedom of speech. The right to dissent. The right to protest. There remains the unfinished business. Having brought down the laws of racial segregation, or class suppression, we must now unlearn the lessons of the past and to learn to live together. To honor the Golden Rule, do unto others as you would have them to do unto us, and to operate with one set of rules.

The Golden Rule is the key to peace, but a threat to tyrants. They do not want the Golden Rule, they want to with the gold and the stick.

Our message is clear. Dr. King’s message is clear today as it was 40 years ago. Embrace Democracy. Human Rights measured by one yard stick. End Poverty. A Good Neighbor Policy. We are inextricably bound. And a fairer distribution of wealth makes all of us more secure. The right to democratize and vote is a critical first step. We must democratize access to health care, education, and housing. Without an agenda of economic security, democracy is just recycling poverty.

Dr. King thought the triple evils of racism, militarism, and capitalism without checks and balances and transparency, had to be addressed. Such a set of values is counter-cultural. It helped to bring about significant change and by age 39, to the pain of many and the satisfaction of some, he was killed.

But the legacy of his proclamation remains with us.

It was this day, August 28, 1955, when Emmett Till’s body, his water-marked and de-faced body, unleashed shock waves of fear and anguish and anger and pain. Poetically and prophetically, eight years later on the same day in 1963, 43 years ago today, Dr. King led 250,000 people in Washington, D.C., and proclaimed to the world A Dream.

That dream included challenging America to honor the broken promises of the past, a new paradigm of relations, of renewed hope, and a new vision of a new world order, for the poor to be exalted and unshackled. Where racism, sexism, excessive militarism, colonialism, apartheid, would give way to the affirmation of all of humanity. And thus all of God’s children would have their rightful place. A new order where a servant, as the Bible states, would be worthy of his or her hire, and the formula of inter-generational wealth and inter-generational poverty would give way to a new day of shared prosperity.

As the Bible suggests, each to sit under his own vine and fig tree, and none would be afraid.

Dr. King, a minister, a liberation theologian, took Jesus’ mission statement seriously which is central to our faith, “I’ve been anointed to preach the gospel, spread good news to the poor, heal the broken hearted, and set the captives free.”

He went on to say, I separate sheep from goat by your behavior, not by your titles. I was hungry and you fed me. I was naked and you clothed me. I was a prisoner and you visited me. Those were the keys to the Kingdom.

When one of the Pharisees asked Jesus what the core of the law was, Jesus replied,

“You should love the Lord your God with all of your heart, and with all of your soul, and with all of your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is, like it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Such a mission statement made tyrants tremble and the poor celebrate with hope. It was a Gospel for the common people, looking at life from the manger up, that challenged the rich young rulers who saw life from the mansion down. For this vision they plotted to assassinate him. They conspired and killed him. But no grave could hold down the power of his awesome ideas.

Dr. King took seriously the admonition that character is measured not by what you accumulate, but by what you share, and how you treat the least of these. Today, the radical polarization between the very wealthy that lives in the surplus, and the very poor that live in the deficit and abounding poverty, is an unnatural gap. It violates the divine order.

The rich are not getting richer because they are working harder. The poor are not poor because they are working less. Thus Dr. King’s last mission was to organize a Poor People’s Campaign: a multi-racial, multi-cultural coalition, with sons and daughters of former slaves and slave-masters, Blacks and Whites, Jews and Latinos, Asian and Native Americans, workers, who could sit around a common table and create a floor beneath which no human being would fall.

We must not commercialize our faith and reduce it to the whims of the culture. We must remain a challenging transformative Gospel that benefits the poor and those who are in life’s margins.

Dr. King, like Moses and Jesus, was a minority with a majority vision. He saws life through a door for all, not a key hole for some. He saw the big tent vision that made room for all and left none in the margins.

Dr. King had a keen sense of history. He argued that injustice anywhere, was a threat to justice everywhere. And thus Southern segregation, the oppressed in the “Banana Republic” of Central and Latin America, the colonized nations of Africa, the war in Vietnam, politics of assassination of which he was eventually a victim – killed at age 39 – he rejected.

Like Jesus he reached out to the poor and the oppressed. The colonized in Africa. The victims of the greed, the landed gentry of South America. All came under the watchful eye of his prophetic witness. He sought to rally workers to achieve self-worth and dignity, and to change objective conditions under which they live. He was not against the wealthy – he would often say, “If the rich just got richer, slower, there would be enough for all the rest.”

Since 1963, much has changed in America and the world. And much remains the same. The struggle for fairness, equal protection, equal opportunity, self-determination, the struggle to defend the poor and the needy, a fairer distribution of wealth and resources, continues in the face of the hostility of the vested interests, power and domination of the few.

God has distributed the resources in such a way that makes all of us necessary. Venezuela. #1 oil producer in our hemisphere and #5 in the world. Endowed to be necessary. It thus has a place at the world’s table to discuss the destiny of the world. We have the resources to make all of us secure. It is corruption, exploitation, arrogance of power, race and class insecurity that we must address.

The power of Love and a commitment to justice, informed by mercy, can change things. Love is an awesome weapon; in Love we are obligated to care. Within my own country, radical polarization of wealth and poverty is a painful reality. 50 million Americans have no health insurance. The working poor are expanding. The well off go to college. The less well off go to war. All too often we see first class jails for profit, yet second class schools. In a nation of 2.4 million prisoners, with a population 20% African American, they are 60% of the nation’s jails. The stench of injustice abounds.

Though these are painful realities we must remain hopeful and overcome the odds and keep dreaming anyhow. Within my own country, the dream of peace with our neighbors, the dream of reconciliation and negotiation, must be kept alive. Threats and isolation of nations and neighbors, pre-emptive strikes, politics of assassination, wars of choice like the war in Iraq, must be rejected.

The war in Iraq does not address our national security; it is a destabilizing war for the Middle East and the world community. It makes the world less secure. We were told there was an imminent threat against our nation; we were told there were weapons of mass destruction, and there was an Al Qeda connection. None of this proved to be true. All turned out to be lies.

The war is costing lives, and money and honor. It is a moral disgrace. We must dream of a brighter day and go another way.

In 40 years, we’ve witnessed tremendous progress. African colonialism from Ghana to South Africa has been defeated. But too often, neo-colonialism, economic exploitation, poor people living on rich soil and not benefiting from their native resources, has been the result. This is unacceptable.

In this new order of global capital and technology, there is often a low regard for human rights and the plight of the poor and the indigenous people. There is global exploitation, a growing North/South gap, growing gaps between the surplus cultures – those that have more than they need – and the deficit culture – those that do not have bar essentials.

We must use technology, scientific farming and expand communications to wipe out poverty, disease and AIDS, and undrinkable water.

We must lead by being morally right, not by bullying with military might.

Dr. King would say, the arc of the universe is long but it always bends toward justice. The struggles of Africa, Asia, and Latin America to change the face of the earth without dropping a single bomb on a neighbor ought to be admired. We must maintain this momentum to make the world better. We must use power to reduce tensions, and reduce the rhetoric of idle threats. We must stop the acts and language of terrorism wherever they manifest themselves. We must measure terror by one yardstick.

Unfortunately last week in America, a minister of substantial influence used his platform to suggest that a head of state should be assassinated. It was such a repugnant, immoral, illegal statement; it deserves an investigation by our FCC and the Department of Justice, and a swift rejection by our President.

So far this has not happened.

The good news is that the politics of assassination are part of our sordid past is now illegal. It must be unequivocally clear that such a heinous act is not desirable nor designed nor planned. We must use power to reduce tensions, reduce the rhetoric of our threats.

Secretary Rumsfeld was in the region saying Venezuela is a menace, a threat to regional stability. Rev. Pat Robertson said that is true, therefore, rather than pay the price of war, let us assassinate him. He later modified it to say let us kidnap him. All of those ideas, the politics of isolation and assassination, must give way to reconciliation and reconstruction.

We must pursue good neighbor policies. In a world blinded by greed and drunk with military might, those with the most money and the most guns will not win, but rather the winner will be the one with the clearest vision and humane values.

That is the message of Dr. King and Nelson Mandela, the two tallest global frames of reference in the world today. They are both Pro Democracy and committed to shared responsibility, to a fair court system where justice is transparent and not for sale, nor at the end of a gun. They both believed in human rights for children and women, workers, the environment, and are respectful of different races and religions. They both were against racism, anti-Semitism and bigotry in all of its forms.

They both believed that good neighbors ought to use influence to diplomatically resolve conflict and reject killing, invasion, occupation and conquest. In the new world order, there is no place for gun boat diplomacy, pre-emptive strikes or assassination of world leaders.

If in our lifetime, we can see the Berlin Wall come down. If early one Sunday morning we can see Mandela walk out of jail after 27 years. We can see Rabin and Arafat sit on the White House lawn and lay the framework for a new era of diplomacy en route ultimately to a two state solution. One day we can look forward to President Chavez and America’s President to exchange visit. The people deserve it. Leaders with the most courage and vision will take the most initiative.

Though our histories are burdensome with pain and often bitter memories, we must have the strength to get ahead and not just “get even.”

That’s the lesson of Mandela. He turned pain into liberation for all, not retribution for the former oppressed. In this great nation, President Chavez has the mandate and opportunity to create a new paradigm. A nation of Latinos, Africans, Jews, Indians, light skinned, dark skinned, poor and rich. There are abundant resources here to create a one big tent, shared security Democracy.

What a great opportunity to show the world how to live together and spread that joy. Dr. King and Mandela and Bolivar have given us road maps. And so, Venezuela, be strong. You have 75 players playing Major League Baseball, and Ozzie Guillen in Chicago with the most winning record as a manager. Be strong.

Define strength by lifting up, not by pressing down. Be strong.

Wipe out poverty. Be strong.

Provide health care for all who need, not just based on money. Be strong.

Reduce infant morality and extend life expectancy. Be strong.

Help lead the fight against drugs, drugs driven by the thirst for money, greed and violence. It’s the #1 source of terror and hurt in the world today. Help lead the war against drugs that is so destructive to the human family. Be strong.

Master the art of conflict resolution. Be strong.

Lift up those who are down, pulling up those who are out. Build bridges to those with whom we are now disconnected. Let’s move forward by our hopes and dreams, not backwards by our fears.

Let a new hope arise, let a new day dawn.