Tanisha Arena’s MLK Day Keynote Speech

Thank you for attending the 37th Annual MLK Day Celebration! We are filled with gratitude for our musicians, speakers, facilitators, and guests who made this day so meaningful. By popular demand, here is the text of the Keynote Speech delivered by Tanisha Arena, Executive Director of ARISE for Social Justice. To watch a video of the Convocation and Tanisha’s speech, see here. Her speech begins at the 29 minute mark.

Photo from Anti-Police Terror Project.

An open letter to our country…

This is who we are.

I’m not aware of too many things. I know what I know if you know what I mean. We gathered here to honor the legacy of Dr. King, as we do every year at this time. Some years have been a bit more creative than others, with all that we may have seen and endured in the year before. 2020 was a year like no other we have seen. But it wasn’t a year like no other we have had. It was just on display for all to see. For some who are old enough, maybe you remember eyewitness accounts of these social injustices and for others, we watched it in horror. The revolution may not be televised, but it is on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

I’ve often asked, what would the civil rights movement be like if Dr. King could send a tweet or ask Bayard Ruston to go on Facebook live during a sit-in? While we sometimes underestimate the power of hashtag activism, we are witnessing
its power in real time as white supremacy shows itself in all its ugliness. We see it and we don’t like the way it looks and feels. The thing that lurked in the dark and tormented us in the shadows, destroying black property, black community, black families, and black lives has shown itself in all its majestic glory. This isn’t strange fruit. It is one enjoyed by the founders of this land, the fruit of colonization, dominance, violence, and supremacy. This is who we are and it’s who we have been. To believe anything else is to believe the lie and to continue planting and sowing the seeds of this familiar fruit.

Remember in 2016 when Colin Kaepernick took a knee? He knelt for the entire season and has not played in the NFL since 2017. It was the way he chose to protest the brutality of the police towards black folks more than the brutality itself that sparked anger. There was the conflation of militarism and patriotism. Kaep’s knee on the ground was more offensive than an officer’s knee on the neck…nevermind. Remember who you are? I do. In April of 1963, Dr. King penned his letter from a Birmingham jail, and he called out the hypocrisy back then. “You deplore the demonstrations that are presently taking place in Birmingham. But I am sorry that your statement did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being.” 1963. 2020. 2021. It’s just the way you protest that’s the problem. But an ask is a problem. A knee is a problem. A march is a problem. Complying is a problem. Simply existing is a problem. Amadou Diallo. Sean Bell. Trayvon Martin. Tamir Rice. Sandra Bland. Philando Castille. Breonna Taylor. Atianna Jefferson. George Floyd. Ahmed Aubrey. Jacob White…who is still alive, paralyzed from the waist down, viewed as a threat walking AWAY from the officers. But if he had just complied… When our collective pain turned to outrage and set fire to property that was never ours? Dr. King said a riot was the language of the unheard. Can you hear me now? Can you hear the screams of Mamie Till on that dog day in August 1955 when she saw her beloved son after he was found drowned for whistling at a white woman? She wanted the “us” that lurks in the shadows to see what had been done to her son, in upholding the lie and sowing the seeds. Carolyn Bryant Donham. From Carolyn to Karen, a
white woman in Central Park calling the police on a black man who simply asked her to put a leash on her dog. To comply. To follow the rules. Her words, her actions, her seeds, the familiar fruit of dominance and violence. This is who we are.

We talk about Dr. King in this whitewashed way, forgetting the number of times he was beaten. Jailed. His family threatened and his life ended. Why must the cost of declaring Black Lives Matter be the destruction of a black life? As I speak today, I am 42 years old. I’ve lived 3 years longer than Dr. King who was murdered at the age of 39. He was a husband and a father. A mother had to bury her son. A father lost his namesake. This is who we are.

The rhetoric of reaching across the aisle for healing can only come in truth telling and deep honesty about the ugliness of who we have been as a nation to more than half of our people. For the first time there is a division in whiteness instead of it being the default. Black folks have long since known all skin folk ain’t kinfolk and now that the veil has been lifted, white people must ask this question and come to the same understanding. In skin like mine, are you an anti-racist or a white supremacist?

And just because you are an anti-racist does not mean that the privilege of whiteness misses you. There is work to be done to dismantle the systems and institutions that have remained hidden in plain sight, choking the life out of us. Let us not use Dr. King’s words out of context to silence the voices of those he gave his life for. While there are uplifting speeches and inspiring words, Dr. King knew “true peace is not merely the absence of tension, it is the presence of justice.” White supremacy is a culture of dominance at all costs. It is gutting healthcare in a pandemic while denying survival checks to the rest of us while Jeff
Bezoz becomes a trillionaire. It’s a housing crisis and millions facing eviction and foreclosure while there’s an abundance of empty property. It is forcing the building of a pollution spewing, wood burning biomass plant in an environmental Justice community, in a city known as the asthma capital of the US, with a failing air quality grade from the American Lung Association. Oh, that just happens to have a large black and brown community. It is knowing that attack ads for candidates in other countries are calling out, don’t make us like America. It’s caring more about being called a racist than racism. This is who we are.

This is a lot to take in. To accept the painful truths and to get away from the story we have been telling ourselves. In a speech given at Southern Methodist University, in 1966, Dr. King spoke out about the complicity of the state and the church. He writes, “The famous Dred Scott decision of 1857 well-illustrated the status of the Negro during slavery. For in this decision, the Supreme Court of our nation said in substance that the Negro is not a citizen of the United States. He is merely property subject to the dictates of his owner. It went on to say that the Negro has no rights that the white man is bound to respect. With the growth of slavery, it became necessary to give some justification for it. It seems to be a fact of life that men cannot continue to do wrong without eventually reaching out for some thin rationalization to cloth an obvious wrong in the beautiful garments of
righteousness. This is exactly what happened during the days of slavery. Even religion was used, or I should say misused, to crystalize the patterns of the status quo and to justify the system of slavery. And so it was argued from some pulpits that the Negro is inferior by nature because of Noah’s curse upon the children of Ham. The Apostle Paul’s dictum became a watchword: That servants be obedient to your master.”

You will know a tree by the fruit that it bears. The fruit of these United States is rotten, infected with white supremacy and racism in laws, policies, and ordinances. Voter suppression, redlining, gerrymandering, jails replicating slavery, a la the 13th amendment…It’s the false narrative of the welfare queen and single mothers forced to forgo a college education or lose their assistance benefits that barely kept them just under poverty – literally the foundation story of Arise for Social Justice! This fruit is wars waged on black communities (just say no to drugs), sentencing disparities between cocaine and crack, mandatory minimums, and the only time opioids became a crisis is when the addict was Todd from the suburbs and not Tasha from the ‘hood. You cannot change something you are unwilling to confront. This is who we are.

As a black woman in this position, with a platform to speak and folks want to listen, it cannot and will not be my job to tell white people the things they want to hear, that uphold this lie. Do you want to live well or do you want to be white? How can I get you to see the connectedness that we have and to do things like not vote against your own interests in the intersection of race and class? How can I get you to understand that black and brown communities are capable of self management? We have raised kids that weren’t ours and worked on land we couldn’t own and survived the horrors of plantations. We are the experts of our own lives. We don’t need you to save us, we need you to listen, to see, to understand that the systems that oppress us, oppress you too. That your liberation is tied to ours. We need you to push resources into our communities and remove the barriers to access so that we can thrive. We need you to know that we value our lives, our kids, our families, and our communities, just as you do. We have multi-dimensional lives, and our issues are more than poverty and policing. We are intellectuals, we are artisans, we are teachers, students, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, cousins, aunties, uncles, grandmothers, and grandads. We are the heroes that you don’t see. Shout out to Officer Eugene Goodman. A black life in a blue uniform, literally thwarting a white supremacist coup attempt. A soldier. A patriot. We care about a country that has never cared about us. We are human. This is who WE are.

I continue with the words of Dr. King. “It would be a marvelous thing if speakers all over our nation could talk about this problem in terms of a problem that once existed but that no longer has existence. But see if I stop now I will merely be stating fact and not telling the truth. You see a fact is merely the absence of contradiction but the truth is the presence of coherence. Now it is a fact that we have come a long, long way, but it isn’t the whole truth. And in order to tell the truth, I must give the other side and if I stop at this point, I may leave you the victims of a dangerous optimism if I stop now. I may leave you the victims of an illusion wrapped in superficiality. So, in order to tell the truth, it is necessary to move on and say not only have we come a long, long way, we still have a long, long way to go before the problem of racial injustice is solved in our country. Now I need not dwell on this point. We need only turn on our televisions and open our newspapers and look around our community. We see that the problem is still with us.”

King writes, “Over the last 18 months, more than 52 Negro churches have been burned in the state of Mississippi alone. It seems they have a slogan there now which doesn’t say attend the church of your choice but burn the church of your choice.” Let us not forget, this speech was delivered March 17, 1966. On December 28, 2020 the Martin Luther King Presbyterian Church in Springfield was burned by a white supremacist. History, past and present is showing us who we are. Who we have been. Denial does not save us.

Now that we know who we are, we can work towards who we want to be. This is the moment in time where we have to look at ourselves in the mirror and decide that today is the day we quit racism and white supremacy. If Dr. King were alive today, with all that is going on, the hatred, voter suppression and blatant racism, a fascist dictator in the White House, the collusion and complicity of other elected officials, he would offer up three important things. 1. Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. 2. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that. 3. Black Lives Matter. I believe he would also remind us of his words from before, “nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

He would also talk about how far we have come towards the realization of his dream. We elected the first black president, Barack Obama to not one, but two terms. We have the election of our first black vice-president-elect Kamala Harris,
who is being sworn in by the first Latina supreme court justice, Sonia Sotomayor, and we just witnessed the election of the first black senator-elect in Georgia, a man who also preaches at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Rev. Raphael Warnock.

I imagine he would have called Stacey Abrams, LaTosha Brown and the host of other activists that worked to overcome the blatant attempts at voter suppression in Georgia. We are indeed moving towards a dream realized, HOWEVER, we have much more work to do, to eliminate the rot of racism and white supremacy in our society.

I want you all to come away from this moment today really thinking about who you are and if that is who you want to be. Ultimately these are personal decisions. When you look in the mirror, are you happy with the person that you see? Are you speaking up and speaking out? Simply saying you are an ally does not give absolution. Now is a time for action and being an anti-racist requires action. It is a stance that one must take that is reflected in the life you live, the choices you make, the people you entertain, where and how you spend your money and how you cast your vote.

Dr. King was not a politician, he was a minister, following the teachings of Christ and at the root of that is social justice. That which plagues our society is in the purview of the church. It is in the purview of all of us. As I have learned from a dear friend, accountability without compassion is dominance and compassion without accountability is collusion. Dominance is a drug that promises connection but will never deliver.

To honor the legacy of a pastor in love with justice and to fulfil a dream, we must put down the white supremacy and the illusion of dominance. Dominance is not justice. Dr. King said, We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools. I would take it a step further and add, we must unlearn our ways of dominance and disconnection, understanding that it will never bring us the fullness of our humanity. This is something we can all do. I leave you with this. “If you can’t fly, then run. If you can’t run, then walk. If you can’t walk, then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.” Let us all move forward together. We can do hard things and create a new and better world with values of equity and connection.

Tanisha Arena

Tanisha Arena is the executive director of ARISE for Social Justice, bringing an intersecting lens, a passion for social justice and transparent, authentic leadership. She is the host of Unapologetic, a podcast bringing the hard truths of our social issues to the forefront. She is a guest commentator on Vaya Con Munoz, a weekly radio show airing on WHMP focusing on political issues, as well as a consultant for Growing A New Heart, facilitating Dialogues Across Difference, a training designed to teach ways we can have difficult conversations, facilitate learning and drive social change. Tanisha has focused her nonprofit career on LGBT specific issues and populations and prior to coming to Arise, Tanisha was the Western Mass Advocate for the Violence Recovery Program of Fenway Health, advocating for LGBTQ identified victims and survivors of violence and provided community training to raise awareness of how domestic violence and sexual assault manifests in LGBTQ communities. She was also a member of the governance committee of the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP). As an LGBTQ Program Specialist at Community Action Youth Programs, Tanisha developed a skillset around trauma- informed care and using a strengths-based program model to foster positive youth development. Prior to that, Tanisha worked in the private sector, during which time she was a mentor at True Colors, a support and advocacy organization for sexual minority youth in Hartford, CT. Tanisha holds a bachelor’s degree from Central Connecticut State University and a Master’s Degree in Non Profit Management from Bay Path University. She is a published author, public speaker and freelance writer in her spare time.