In MLK Jr. Tradition, Butts Gives Rousing Keynote Speech

The Rev. Calvin O. Butts, who has fought for social justice while serving as pastor of New York's Abyssinian Baptist church, delivered a rousing keynote speech at the evening program for Martin Luther King Jr. Day at the Annenberg School theater, Monday, Jan. 20.

Butts, who gained national attention for leading a successful campaign against liquor and tobacco ads targeted at African-American communities, leads one of the largest and most influential African-American churches in the country, and recently spoke out against rap music lyrics that promote violence and abuse of women.

Here are a few excerpts from his speech:

This is a great day. William Jefferson Clinton was inaugurated on a day we celebrate a saint of America. God works in mysterious ways.

... And don't think that change is going to come just through commemoration.

Not only King died. He was at the pinnacle of the movement. He sat highest on the wall, so when he fell, we saw it more clearly. ... There were so many who died - black and white - in order to bring about what we have today. Thank God for Martin Luther King; look at me at the University of Pennsylvania.

I talked to Bill Cosby on Friday. He told me, when you speak to young people, talk to them about dignity.

... DuBois ... said education has three purposes: to improve character, to increase knowledge, and to help us to earn a living. In America we turned it upside down and put character on the bottom. We've got to return it to its rightful place.

[Cosby] said talk to them about dignity.

And I watched him. He didn't kick the camera away. He turned the camera around and he faced [it]. He let people know of his grief, but at the same time he wanted his son's death not to be only a time for mourning, but a time to cause people to look toward something greater than themselves.

Talk to them about ... the dignity of our ancestors, the dignity that causes us to stand up in the face of injustice and speak out even in the fear of our lives.

... He talked about dignity, the kind of dignity that will cause me never to speak to a person who doesn't look like me in a disrespectful way.

...We must never again be under the bondage of those who think they are better because of the color of their skin. ... Oh no, your culture is no greater than anyone else's. Your history is not richer than anyone else's. And you have no reason to think of yourself as being superior to anyone else. And we must constantly remind them of that, not only by our voice, but by our sheer excellence of achievement,

...achievements that are undergirded by a strong education, and a commitment that we will go forth with our excellence with character.

... And in our educational institutions we can't let them forget either because when it comes time for promotions and hiring of professors - Gipson [Penn's Chaplain, the Rev. William C. Gipson], it's good to see you boy, it's good to see you man, you don't know how good it is.

... Talk to them about dignity, about the fact that we are going to make America the place where we all of us can live together and especially for black people, we cannot become so isolationist.

A rabbi and a student were walking down the road one evening and as they walked and talked, evening became night. They had walked all night long, and the young student looked up at the Rabbi and said, "Master, ... how do you tell when the night is ending or the dawn is beginning? Is it when you look down the road and see a dog coming and you can tell it's a dog, not a cat?" The master said, "No." He said, "Is it, Master, when you can look at a tree and you can see that it's an apple tree and not a pear tree?" The master said, "No." The student said, "Tell me Rabbi, ... when can you tell that the night is ending and the dawn is beginning?" And the master looked at this young student and said, "Son, it is when you can look upon the face of your fellow human being and see there not black or white but your brother or sister. Then the long midnight is over. The day is breaking ... and there is the promise of a greater tomorrow."

Originally published on January 28, 1997