Updated, 8:23 a.m.: Copy edits, revised headline
NORWALK, Conn. – A new civil rights movement is needed, Lawrence Hamm said Monday to more than 200 people assembled at City Hall for Norwalk’s annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. observance.
Hamm, chairman of the New Jersey social justice group People’s Organization for Progress, delivered a fiery speech which reviewed civil rights history and the road ahead.
He seized upon the image of the late Rev. Martin Luther King depicted on the event’s program. Most people choose the iconic version of King giving a speech, he said. The lesser-used image “looks like a man in depths of thought and contemplation and meditation, because he lived in troubled times,” Hamm said. “This looks like the Dr. King, not the Dr. King who accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, this looks like the Dr. King days before he was assassinated.”
“See, we all love Dr. King now. We all love him. He’s a great man for all of us now but some of you all wouldn’t have been caught dead with Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968,” Hamm said.
The program included spirited performances by the Martin Luther King Choir of Norwalk, which brought attendees to their feet multiple times. Hamm was the keynote speaker.
The civil rights movement began “the day they started taking slaves from the African continent,” he said.
The murder of 14-year-old Emmet Till in 1955 was “a dastardly crime,” and a catalyst for change, Hamm said. The Chicago boy had gone to visit family in Mississippi and been accused of flirting with a white woman, then beaten and shot in the head.
Hamm said that he had also been sent to the South when he was a boy.
“People don’t really understand the daily terror that black people lived under, in the South,” Hamm said. Amid modern fears of terrorism, black people have been “terrorized for 400 years,” he said.
“The death of Emmet Till was the kindling that started the fire of civil rights,” he explained. Rosa Parks “was not just a tired seamstress” but a “secretary of the NAACP in Montgomery,” who famously refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus soon after attending a rally for Till, led by King.
The program photo “looks like the Dr. King that was not praised by the New York Times,” Hamm said. “That was not praised by Time Magazine, who didn’t have his picture on the cover on Newsweek, this is the Dr. King that had a 25 percent approval rating in 1968. This looks like the Dr. King who had been criticized not only by the white pastors in Birmingham…. but by his own fellow black pastors.”
After King came out against the Vietnam War, he was criticized sharply. “…this is the real lesson of Dr. Kings life,” Hamm said. “It’s where you stand in a time of trouble, that’s what really counts.”
King didn’t have a lot of money, Hamm said.
“There’s a sacrifice for speaking truth to power,” Hamm said. “But because we don’t have enough people who really want to live and work in the spirit of Dr. King, we’re in the shape we are in today. Yes, we have come a long way, but I want to tell you something. We don’t just have a long way to go, we are going backwards.”
At the current rate of progress, “It would take 283 years to close the wealth gap between white and black families in America,” Hamm said. “…There are twice as many poor people in America today than when King was alive in 1968. There are twice as many unemployed.”
He went on to challenge attendees to have a “social justice baptism and go to your first demonstration.”
People who work 40 hours a week should be able to support a family and there should be Medicare for all, he said. Three of the country’s richest men have more wealth than 180 million of their fellow Americans and, “Anybody who reads history knows that’s a formula for disaster.”
“America is a great nation but we can be a greater nation,” he said, advocating for redistribution of wealth and a a restructuring of the country’s social economic system.
“There should be no hungry children in America. People shouldn’t be lining up for food stamps,” he said. “We can do better than this. But to do better than this we must build a movement… The people who are in power today are in part in power for all the people who didn’t come out to vote in 2016. … I challenge you to make a space in your life for social justice.”