Evett Simmons’ MLK Day of Impact full speech


Thank you so much.

Would you believe that April I will celebrate my 40th anniversary as a Florida Southern graduate?


Now I didn’t realize that until this morning, and as with any occasion that’s big, I celebrated with a poem. So I threw out a couple of thoughts this morning.

I came to this campus as a piece of clay
and the finished product is what you see today.
Like any artwork as the years go on,
Restoration is needed, so we make our way home.

And it’s good to be home with you this morning, because Florida Southern is my home.

When we think of Dr. Martin Luther King, we think of a Baptist pastor leading the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott, precipitated by Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on a city bus. And we think of a great speaker who took us to the mountaintop, taught us to dream and challenged us to be drum majors for justice. We think of a man who went to Morehouse at the age of 15 after just completing the 11th grade, a man that received his masters at Crozer Theological Seminary valedictorian of his class, his phd at boston university, his first pastoral assignment at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, and was elected president of the montgomery improvement association which launched a movement that became our modern-day civil rights movement by the age of 27. We think of a man who at the age of 33 was named Time Magazine’s Man of the Year and at the age of 35 was a recipient of the Nobel Peace prize. A man who was a husband and a father of four. A man who left this earth at the age of 39,

Last Tuesday, if Dr. King had been alive, he would have celebrated his 90th birthday, had he not been gunned down with a single shot from a Remington rifle by James Earl [Ray] on April 4, 1968, when he came out of his room and stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.

To honor Dr. King, I want to share with you a poem that I wrote, and that is included in the collection of Black History poems collection that you will receive today, capsulizing the movement, which he led. And it’s entitled The Poetry of the Civil Rights Movement.

Over 500 lynchings
In Mississippi alone.
It was the 1950s,
And humanity was gone.

We can’t forget Emmett Till,
Fourteen when he was killed.
Spoke fresh to a woman who was white.
He was beaten and mutilated in the night.

To break down segregation
They needed the weapon of love.
They needed a faith like Peter.
They had to be both hawk and dove.

The other weapon they had
Was the weapon of protest.
And their weapon was met with
Oppressive laws and unrest.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Was selected to lead.
With weapons of love and protest,
God chose him for this deed.

In the church sanctuaries
We could hear the protesters sing.
In the mass meetings,
Gospel melodies would ring.

For in God’s house there was
No animosity or fear.
With Christ as their example,
Their path of nonviolence was clear.

But nonviolence was confronted by
Violence as the movement continued on.
With the killing of little children and other
Murders that were condoned.

Those four little girls in Birmingham
Killed by a bomb blast
Set in the church basement
By a racist clinging to the past.

We also can’t forget from Topeka
Came the Little Rock Nine
And Brown v. Board of Education in which
Plans for school desegregation were defined.

Then there were clergy justifying hate
By making the flawed case
That slavery and segregation
Were rooted on a Biblical base.

But also there were clergy
True to their spiritual call
In lock step with protestors
And sacrificing their all.

Our history is a mystery if
It’s not shared through the years.
Black history is America’s history
Shaped by blood, sweat, and tears.

We cannot rewrite our history.
We cannot escape our sordid past.
We must accept the all of America
And strive for the good in her grasp.

America, oh America
I love you because I am free.
America, oh America
Give me tolerance for others not like me.

Now, when we think of Dr. King, we think of the words of speeches like, “the ultimate measure of a person is not where they stand of moments of comfort or convenience, but where they stand at times of challenges and controversy,” and “Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. And our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” And finally, “Morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. Judicial decrees may not change the heart, but they can restrain the heartless.”

Dr. King was arrested many times while participating in non-violent direct action protests. One of those occasions occurred in April of 1963 after a runoff election in Birmingham. Eight prominent Jewish and protestant clergymen published a statement acknowledging that they were sympathetic to the plight of Negroes, but felt that the methods used as nonviolent protest and demonstration were extreme and dangerous. They suggested that Negroes should be cautious, and over time they would gain their rights. Now while in solitary confinement, in his methodical, patient and exhaustive manner, he began writing. Starting on the newspaper that included the clergy’s statement, then to pieces of writing paper supplied by friendly Negroes working in the jail and finally on a pad his attorney was eventually permitted to give him, he wrote a letter, the length of a book, that we know as Letter from Birmingham Jail. There were many paragraphs of the letter that both inspired and enlightened me, and some even disheartened me to see that in some ways we are facing the same battles 55 years later. But there were two that I want to share with you as it addresses self-reflection.

“I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection….

Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”

If Dr. King were here celebrating his 90th birthday, would he write a letter to us about our complacency and numbness with regard to what is happening on America’s southern border?

What would Dr. King say to us about our reaction to the plight of our fellow human beings from countries like Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, fleeing violence, persecution, and even poverty, to take that dangerous journey from Central America to seek asylum in the United States of America, some coming in caravans because of safety concerns?

What would Dr. King say about the Customs and Border Protection arresting a group of 376 migrants during the week of his birthday, having tunnelled under the southern border into Arizona? Almost all were families and unaccompanied minors from Central America fleeing violence and poverty, seeking asylum.

What would Dr. King say about a Congress showing no backbone to a president and an administration that are singularly focused on removing the welcoming blindfolds from the eye of Lady Liberty?

What would Dr. King say about the lies crossing over the airwaves, our computers, our social media accounts, in our workplaces, in our schools, and even our homes that “dangerous,” “drug-infested,” “disease-infested” people, including “rapists” and those with “calves the size of cantaloupes” are crossing our southern borders illegally, when the truth is that in 2017 border apprehensions were at their lowest point since 1971?

According to the Department of Homeland Security, undetected illegal crossings have declined from 850,000 in 2006 to approximately 62,000 in 2016. The group of migrants that have been on the rise is families fleeing from violence and seeking asylum. This is a humanitarian crisis, not an illegal border crisis.

And how does America respond? “Take the children; break up the families; send the soldiers; build a wall.” I say “America,” and not “a callous, nationalist, separatist president and administration,” because for its citizens to be silent is to condone. Our silence is tantamount to a day of negative impact, when our nation is screaming for us to deliver a positive impact.

Think of this. When the angel came to Mary and Joseph and told them to flee Bethlehem and go to Egypt because Herod was killing all of the children up to the age of two, they became refugees fleeing for safety.

What would have become of Christianity if Pharaoh had denied Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus entrance to Egypt? What would have happened if Pharaoh’s army had taken Jesus from Mary and Joseph and sent him back to Herod’s jurisdiction? What true christian can reconcile the words and actions of Jesus with the inhumanity at America’s southern border? American presidents espouse that every week 300 of America’s citizens are killed by heroin alone, 90 percent of which floods across our southern borders. Yes, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration that is true, but it is brought into the country in vehicles entering through legal border crossings, and not through areas where are walls or proposed walls.

America’s president claims thousands of Americans have been killed by those illegally entering the country but crime data studies say no. Texas, which has the longest southern border, has data evidencing that the rate of crime among undocumented immigrants are generally lower than native-born Americans.

More importantly, most of the illegal crossings are from our northern border with Canada, and visa overstays. Why is there no call for a northern border wall? Why does this country’s government value black and brown lives less than white lives? America, a nation of immigrants, is only as great as her welcoming heart.

Yes, we must invest in making sure drugs and contrabands are stopped at our ports of entry. And we must invest in technology and personnel to stop real and not fake illegal immigration, but we must also expand and expedite the processing of asylum applications. We are keeping children and families in deplorable conditions, as evidenced by the recent death of two children. We must stop manufacturing the circumstances and call it crisis.

Now, some of you may remember another of my poems called America, the Flower Pot, and a part of it goes like this:  

I see America as a flowerpot,
A bouquet of roses, carnations, tulips, and lilies,
Each beautiful in its own right,
But even more beautiful together,
Enjoying nutrients from the same dirt
And absorbing the same water,
Growing together,
Yet separately keeping those characteristics that make us individuals.

Now, I believe Dr. King would have a new analogy. He would see each of us as a vehicle in God’s fleet. Each vehicle is different because God has given us different looks, circumstances, and purposes, and we can trust him to guide us but we must be willing to release our hands and let him take control of the wheel.

The beauty of the journey is that we can each take different routes, or different modes of transportation, like we did to get to this campus, and arrive at the same place, and as he works through us, others will see our fantastic vehicles, and be drawn to him.

When we make that final appointment with death, and we think of all of those appointments leading to that final one, remember: it is not how long we stayed, but what we did while we stayed. It is not how many lives we touched, but how we touched many lives. It is not how much we shared, but that we shared what we had. It is not the length of our life, but what we did during our lives.

Now, Dr. King talked about agape love. Agape love is the John 3:16 love. It is the 1 Corinthians love. It is the Hebrew ahava love. It is the “I love you even if I hate what you are doing” love. It is the “I love you even if you disrespect me” love. It is a love from a God that does not distinguish between the races, or the sexes, political views or the classes. It is a love from a God who did not say that men would be saved through his grace and not women, or whites would be saved through his grace and not blacks, or that straights would be saved through his grace and not LBGTQs, or that the more educated would be saved through his grace and not the least educated or that the rich would be saved through his grace and not the poor. It’s a love from an equal opportunity God.

If I could speak with Dr. King as his surrogate, I would encourage each of you to take on the armor of his cause, to look beyond the prejudices, propagandas and half-truths that shout out on 24-hour news cycles, from the television, from the Internet, from the radio, from the telephone, from the workplace, in the dorms, and sometimes from the classrooms.  

I would challenge you, as Dr. King said, to weigh the evidence to discern the truth form the false, real from fake, to not confuse movement with progress, to be your brother’s keeper, to be your sister’s keeper, because but for God’s grace and your luck as to the conditions surrounding your birth, you could be walking in the shoes of your brother or sister down a path, through a forest, headed to a border with no GPS for guidance.

GPS stands for “God who guides you, People who protect you, and the Security in being what is still one of the greatest countries in this world.”

Each of you have the opportunity to make a positive impact to the people and environment of this country, and this interconnected world. Dr. King is calling on us to make a positive impact, and it starts with each of you, today. Thank you very much, and God bless you.



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