Since 1986, the third Monday of January has been reserved to commemorate the birthday, life and legacy of one of the nation’s greatest leaders, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Dr. King—a Baptist preacher, scholar, and arguably the greatest leader of the Civil Rights Movement, selflessly fought for the equal rights of not only African Americans but all people.
In a time when Jim Crow and legal segregation were the law of the land, Dr. King became the face of a movement that sought to dismantle the institution of racial injustice. He advocated for persons in poverty, spoke against the Vietnam war, and worked to ensure that all Americans had equal rights and protections under the law. Nearly 50 years after Dr. King’s assassination, his legacy lives on.
Although MLK Day is a national holiday, the ways in which people choose to celebrate—or not—are endless. Many schools and organizations across the nation will have the day off and/or host an MLK Day program, while others may participate in a community service project or attend city-wide marches and rallies.
Just Another Day Off?
As our nation continues to fight issues of social injustice and racial tension, many question whether or not the ideals memorialized on MLK Day—a day of peace and tolerance—hold true throughout the year.
“We need to understand as a country that what [Dr. King] fought for still needs to be fought for today,” says Thomas McElroy, a long-time musician from Seattle Washington. “The path towards a country united under the principals he laid down for all of us still needs to be worked on.”
So, the question becomes, does MLK Day hold any true meaning in present-day society? Or, has it been reduced to a day off from work and school?
According to Erin Jones, “We have turned the day into an opportunity to rehearse the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.”
“I can honestly say that, personally, I have never celebrated the holiday and have taken it as a vacation day,” says Elisabeth Scott, a recent college graduate of Western Washington University. “It wasn’t until going to my current church, that I participated in an MLK service. Had I not sung [during service], I probably wouldn’t have attended.”
However, Sergeant First Class Derek White, a 16-year member of the armed forces still sees the value in MLK Day, and what it means to the future of our society.
“I think that MLK being observed most definitely holds weight for both older and the younger generations. One way to ensure that our past does not repeat itself is by honoring people like Dr. King and his legacy and what he fought for and stood for.”
The Importance of Generational Knowledge
As an educator, Erin Jones argues that celebrating MLK Day does not have the same significance for young people today.
“Students have no context to understand the gravity of what Dr. King and his peers accomplished,” the educator says. “That being said, I believe it is our responsibility to communicate the value of this holiday, which is why I agreed to speak at so many schools.”
As a professional mentor to students, Jessica Crenshaw believes in giving back to the community but admits that she does not celebrate Martin Luther King Jr Day—for many different reasons.
“I do not celebrate MLK day as a holiday because I feel the significance of the day has been diminished,” Jessica says. “I feel it has been cheapened down for a “get-off-of-work-free card.”
For Jessica, an authentic celebration of MLK Day should include not only service to the community, rallies, and celebration events, but should serve as a day to reflect and organize for long-term change.
“I feel as if people should really take time to reflect over what Dr. King was trying to accomplish, and actually sit down and have planning meetings to plan out actions to make sure that his dream gets fulfilled,” she says. “Concerts and protests are good, but if you don’t continue to do this work after January 20th then you’re not doing it for a real reason.”
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government, and statewide issues.
Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz has joined the fast-growing calls from Texas lawmakers and A-list celebrities to take a closer look at the death sentence of Rodney Reed.
Cruz called efforts to halt the execution of Reed “a remarkable bipartisan coalition” on Friday night, the day before hundreds of people rallied outside the Texas Governor’s Mansion in support of Reed.
“Having spent years in law enforcement, I believe capital punishment can be justice for the very worst murderers,” Cruz tweeted. “But if there is credible evidence there’s a real chance a defendant is innocent, that evidence should be weighed carefully.”
Reed is set for execution on Nov. 20 and has been on death row for more than two decades. His guilt has always been shrouded in doubt, but the attention and calls for Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to stop his death has skyrocketed in recent months.
This week, a bipartisan group of 26 Texas House lawmakers sent a letter to Abbott and the parole board asking them to stop Reed’s execution so new evidence can be reviewed. Sixteen state senators penned a similar letter Friday, prompting Cruz’s response.
At Saturday’s rally outside the Governor’s Mansion, dozens of politicians, activists and former death row inmates joined family and other supporters of Rodney Reed to demand a reprieve. “Yes we want a delay, but that’s not our ultimate goal,” national Black Lives Matter activist Shaun King said. “Our ultimate goal is not just to extend his life by 30 days.”
A spokesman for Abbott did not immediately respond to questions on Cruz’s statement. And the governor’s office has not responded to previous questions on the Reed case.
The murder of 19-year-old Stacey Stites in Bastrop and the subsequent conviction of Rodney Reed has been in the spotlight for more than two decades. Reed, now 51, has consistently maintained his innocence in the 1996 slaying. His lawyers for years have pointed to new evidence they say makes it impossible for Reed to be the killer and instead, they say, puts suspicion on Stites’ fiancé, Jimmy Fennell.
Bastrop County prosecutors and Stites’ family, however, remain confident Reed is guilty.
Both men have been accused of multiple sexual assaults. Reed was indicted but never convicted, in several other rape cases months before his trial in Stites’ death began in 1998. Fennell spent 10 years in prison after he kidnapped and allegedly raped a woman while on duty as a police officer in 2007.
Since Reed’s conviction in Stites’ death, a suspected murder weapon has gone untested for DNA, forensic evidence has been reexamined and new witnesses have come forward. That has led to a growing chorus of voices — including celebrities like Dr. Phil, Kim Kardashian West, Beyoncé and Oprah — to express their belief in Reed’s innocence and plead for Abbott to stop his death.
Reed has appeals pending in federal court on new witnesses and a repeated request to test DNA on the suspected murder weapon, but most attention is directed at Abbott’s role. The Texas governor can delay an execution for 30 days on his own. With a recommendation from the parole board, he may grant a longer reprieve or re-sentence a death row inmate to life in prison.
At Saturday’s rally, King and other speakers said at the very least Reed’s execution must be delayed so there can be more time to look at evidence. But they hope to go much further.
“Rodney Reed is doing what I’m doing, claiming his innocence,” said Juan Melendez, an exonerated death row inmate from Florida. “When I saw Rodney Reed’s mother’s eyes, I saw my mother’s eyes. I saw the pain and suffering she is going through.”
The IRS audits the working poor at about the same rate as the wealthiest 1%. Now, in response to questions from a U.S. senator, the IRS has acknowledged that’s true but professes it can’t change anything unless it is given more money.
Last month, Rettig replied with a report, but it said the IRS has no plan and won’t have one until Congress agrees to restore the funding it slashed from the agency over the past nine years — something lawmakers have shown little inclination to do.
On the one hand, the IRS said, auditing poor taxpayers is a lot easier: The agency uses relatively low-level employees to audit returns for low-income taxpayers who claim the earned income tax credit. The audits — of which there were about 380,000 last year, accounting for 39% of the total the IRS conducted — are done by mail and don’t take too much staff time, either. They are “the most efficient use of available IRS examination resources,” Rettig’s report says.
On the other hand, auditing the rich is hard. It takes senior auditors hours upon hours to complete an exam. What’s more, the letter says, “the rate of attrition is significantly higher among these more experienced examiners.” As a result, the budget cuts have hit this part of the IRS particularly hard.
For now, the IRS says, while it agrees auditing more wealthy taxpayers would be a good idea, without adequate funding there’s nothing it can do. “Congress must fund and the IRS must hire and train appropriate numbers of [auditors] to have appropriately balanced coverage across all income levels,” the report said.
In response to Rettig’s letter, Wyden agreed in a statement that the IRS needs more money, “but that does not eliminate the need for the agency to begin reversing the alarming trend of plummeting audit rates of the wealthy within its current budget.”
As the latest wave of xenophobic attacks in South Africa dies out, churches in the country and others on the continent are demanding an end to the persistent problem, affecting economic migrants in one of Africa’s biggest economies.
The attacks, targeting nationals from other African countries, began in early September with mobs looting foreign-owned businesses in Johannesburg, the nation’s financial capital. The violence – which left at least 12 people dead — also triggered revenge attacks and looting in Nigeria, Zambia and Congo.
“The attacks jettison cultural and ideological philosophies of Ubuntu (humanity) and Ujamaa (oneness),” said the Rev. Lesmore Gibson Ezekiel, a Nigerian who heads the Peace, Diakonia and Development department of the All Africa Conference of Churches, a continentwide ecumenical group. “This culture of violence must be rejected by all with accompanying actions of entrenching a culture of hospitality.”
Ezekiel urged the government and churches in South Africa to tackle the “recurrent and needless attacks on fellow Africans, who find South Africa as a safe space to thrive and (who) contribute to its well-being.” He urged the churches to open their doors to the migrants seeking protection and shelter and to provide humanitarian support as well as psycho-social support to them.
“We commit (AACC) to accompany all stakeholders in South Africa and the continent … to bring to a halt all acts that project Africa as a continent that eats its own,” said Ezekiel.
This is not the first time South Africa has experienced xenophobic attacks. Before the country’s independence in 1994, immigrants still faced violence and discrimination. The problem continued in post-independent South Africa, with about 67 people dying between 1994 and 2008. The attacks peaked in 2008, with violence and looting targeting Mozambicans and leaving more than 60 people dead. Those attacks ended with the deployment of the army, but nearly 20,000 people were displaced and countless injured. The violence resurfaced in 2015 and 2018 and has been occurring in poor neighborhoods in Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg.
According to Ishmael Tongai, a self-employed Zimbabwean residing in Cape Town, the attacks often spark over allegations that foreign African nationals are taking away jobs meant for South Africans.
“Foreign African migrants are found (in) all sectors of the country’s economy. There are doctors, teachers, vendors and academics. Pastors and priests are also finding space among the millions of Christians,” said Tongai.
South Africa, with a population of about 55 million, estimates that more than 2.2 million foreign nationals from African countries live there. Although most migrants have arrived in search of jobs, the country’s unemployment rate is estimated at 29 percent.
South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, apologized for the attacks but said they presented an opportunity for the continent to tackle poverty, unemployment and inequality, according to news reports.
While the country urged other African nations to manage the migration of their citizens, several African nations pushed back, calling on South Africa to protect their nationals.
But some South African religious leaders questioned the role of political leaders in the violence. Roman Catholic Cardinal Wilfrid Napier, who heads the KwaZulu-Natal Church group, said the clerics are concerned that some politicians are responsible for the violence through their derogatory and inflammatory statements about migrants, refugees, asylum seekers and other vulnerable people, according to the African News Agency on Sept. 9.
“Poverty and competition for scarce resources are some of the factors contributing to this violence,” said Napier. “Violence is not a solution, and blaming the weak and the marginalized is not a solution.”
Nigeria has taken a hard stand, saying it will evacuate about 600 of its nationals trapped in the violence. The West African country’s Catholic bishops censured the attacks but also praised the response to them by the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference.
“We advise Nigerians living at home and abroad to be good and law abiding,” said Archbishop Augustine Akubeze, the president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria.
Noting that Nigeria and South Africa have long-standing diplomatic relations, the archbishop urged the two nations to work to solve the problem affecting their people.
An Episcopal seminary in Virginia has announced plans to create a $1.7 million endowment fund whose proceeds will support reparations for the school’s ties to slavery.
Virginia Theological Seminary said that enslaved persons worked on its campus and the school “participated in segregation” after the end of slavery.
“This is a start,” said the Very Rev. Ian S. Markham, president of the Alexandria-based seminary, in the statement. “As we seek to mark (the) Seminary’s milestone of 200 years, we do so conscious that our past is a mixture of sin as well as grace. This is the Seminary recognizing that along with repentance for past sins, there is also a need for action.”
A spokesman for the seminary said officials know of three buildings on its campus that were built with slave labor, including Aspinwall Hall, where the dean’s and admissions offices are located.
“We do want to honor those who worked in this place and we want to provide financial resources for their descendants,” said Curtis Prather, the seminary’s director of communications. “The Office of Multicultural Ministries will take the lead in the exhaustive research that will need to take place.”
Aspinwall Hall at Virginia Theological Seminary was one of three buildings on campus built with slave labor. Photo by John W. Cross/Creative Commons
The seminary, which was founded in 1823 but admitted its first African American student in 1951, raised the funds for the endowment with a capital campaign. School officials estimate that they will spend $70,000 annually from accumulated interest on reparations.
The decision comes as other institutions of higher learning, some with ties to religion, have mulled whether to offer forms of reparations or not.
In 2017, Georgetown University apologized for its involvement in the 1838 sale of more than 270 enslaved persons that kept the Catholic-run school from bankruptcy. The school renamed two buildings that once honored former university presidents who were priests and supporters of the slave trade. A year earlier, Georgetown announced that it would give preferential status in the admissions process to descendants of the enslaved people who had been owned by Maryland Jesuits.
Georgetown spokesperson Meghan Dubyak said the school’s board of directors will not have an “up or down” vote on the student referendum but “will engage thoughtfully and with the most careful consideration of the issues” raised by it.
Crowds of slave descendants and Georgetown University students and staffers gather for a dedication ceremony of two buildings at the school that were renamed, one in honor of a slave sold by Maryland Jesuits, and another for a free black woman educator, on April 18, 2017. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks
“To my knowledge, this is the most substantial direct financial reparations effort by a university,” said Oast, chair of the history department at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania. “What makes this action by VTS more significant is that it has been undertaken by the university itself, and is fully funded.”
Quardricos Driskell, who teaches religion and politics at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management, agreed.
“VTS would by definition be the first to have a fund — a University-established led form of reparations,” Driskell, pastor of Beulah Baptist Church, located about three miles from the seminary, told Religion News Service in an email message.
Other institutions have chosen to recognize their connections to slavery without making monetary reparations. Last year, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, a flagship institution of the Southern Baptist Convention in Louisville, Kentucky, released a report about its founders condoning slavery and owning slaves, but six months later denied a request from an interracial ministers coalition for financial support for a nearby black college.
Virginia Theological Seminary currently has an enrollment of about 200 master’s and doctoral level students.
The school intends to determine with stakeholders how the income from the endowment fund will be distributed. It said some of it will be allocated to descendants of enslaved persons who worked at the seminary and to assist the work of African American alumni, especially those involved with historic black churches. It also plans to encourage African American clergy in the Episcopal Church and support programs that promote inclusion and justice.
“Though no amount of money could ever truly compensate for slavery, the commitment of these financial resources means that the institution’s attitude of repentance is being supported by actions of repentance that can have a significant impact both on the recipients of the funds, as well as on those at VTS,” said the Rev. Joseph Thompson, director of the seminary’s Office of Multicultural Ministries, in a statement.
“It opens up a moment for us to reflect long and hard on what it will take for our society and institutions to redress slavery and its consequences with integrity and credibility.”
In June 2017 — in response to the planetary climate crisis — Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu and Taoist religious leaders joined hands with indigenous peoples from five tropical countries to form the Interfaith Rainforest Initiative (IRI) — devoted to protecting the world’s last great rainforests.
Since then, IRI has worked to engage congregations of all faiths around the globe in an effort to, through political pressure, protect the rainforests of Brazil, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Indonesia, Colombia and Peru — accounting for 70 percent of the world’s tropical forests.
During Climate Week at the United Nations in New York City starting September 22, IRI will unveil its Faiths for Forests Declaration and action agenda, jumpstarting its global campaign to harness faith-based leadership and the faithful in recognizing tropical forests as “sacred” and humanity’s obligation to provide stewardship to these great bastions of biodiversity.
IRI recognizes the staggering scope of the challenges that lay ahead — to create and energize a worldwide interfaith movement that will successfully pressure national governments to act on climate — national governments that have long backed industrial agribusiness, mining and timber extraction within the world’s last great rainforests.
An ambitious global interfaith partnership, targeting five rainforest countries in Asia, Africa and South America, is emerging to harness interdenominational congregations worldwide in demanding aggressive climate action from national leaders.
The Interfaith Rainforest Initiative (IRI) is an international alliance bringing the leverage of faith-based leadership and moral urgency to a global effort to slow and reverse tropical deforestation by shifting the priorities and policies of world leaders.
Scientists say that meeting the forest conservation goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement is vital to preventing catastrophic global warming of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100. But reducing deforestation as a means of slowing the pace of global warming is seen as increasingly difficult — with the objective hampered by the rapid expansion of industrial agribusiness, mining, and timber extraction, all heavily supported by corporate and financial interests and national governments.
IRI was formed at the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, Norway, in June 2017 as Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu and Taoist religious leaders joined forces with indigenous peoples from the five tropical countries. Promoting the rights of indigenous peoples — whom environmentalist call the true “guardians of the forests” — is viewed as essential to the cause.
The countries on which IRI is focused contain 70 percent of the world’s remaining tropical forests, and include Brazil, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Indonesia, Colombia and Peru — nations which are daily seeing their capacity to regulate the earth’s climate diminished by rampant deforestation due to wildfires, mining, timbering, agriculture, roads, dams and other infrastructure construction.
“This isn’t about churches planting trees,” said Joe Corcoran, IRI program manager with UNEP, the United Nations Environment Programme. “We want to say clearly and definitively to world leaders: religious leaders take this issue of forests and climate very seriously, and they are going to be holding public officials accountable to make sure these issues are addressed.”
During Climate Week at the United Nations in New York City starting September 22, IRI will unveil its Faiths for Forests Declaration and action agenda. Its website will promote the next phase of organizational capacity building, or the congregational “entry point,” as Corcoran called it. Religious leaders and places of worship will be asked to endorse the IRI declaration, access educational materials and learn how to participate in political activism.
Also during Climate Week, millions of young people, led by Swedish teen Greta Thunberg, are expected to participate in global strikes aimed at pressuring policymakers into action.
Corcoran says that IRI’s “movement building” initiative comes at a critical moment, as wildfires rage in Amazonia and the Congo, and as the world turns its attention to New York. There, on September 23, UN General Secretary Antonio Guterres will make a single demand on the world’s nations: stop delaying and commit to aggressively cutting your carbon emissions, and dramatically increase the aggressiveness of your climate action plans now.
“Twenty years ago there wasn’t even a thought connecting religion and ecology,” recalls Mary Evelyn Tucker, an environmental scholar at Yale University with appointments in its schools of forestry, religious studies and divinity.
And it’s likely that this moment in history marks the first time the interfaith community is stepping prominently into the political arena to help significantly reduce rainforest deforestation. The IRI declaration is seen as a rallying point for faith leaders and their followers. It decisively states: “Tropical deforestation is a crisis of existential proportions. We either deal with it now, or leave future generations a planet in ecological collapse.”
But for IRI to be successful, Tucker explained, faith leaders must preach and promote a “change of heart and conscience” that values tropical forests not only for the ecosystem services they deliver to humanity — such as carbon sequestration and climate stabilization — but also for the sake of conserving God’s creation. With more than half of the Earth’s plant, animal and bird species living in the world’s rainforests, s it is vital people of faith understand and value the irreplaceable creatures that keep tropical forests thriving.
“Religious leaders can come onboard for practical reasons,” Tucker noted. “But they can also come onboard because the goals are sacred. That’s why their voices are essential.”
This was the central message offered up by Pope Francis in June 2015 in his unprecedented Catholic teaching document, Laudato Si, On Care for Our Common Home. Concerned by the extinction rate driven by human activity, Francis wrote: “Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right.”
In an early September 2019 swing through southern Africa, the pope denounced the exploitation of natural resources for the economic gain of a few, and decried rampant deforestation in Madagascar: “The last forests are menaced by forest fires, poaching, the unrestricted cutting down of valuable woodlands.”
In August, Laura Vargas, the coordinator of IRI Peru, convened meetings and workshops with three dozen national interfaith and indigenous community leaders in Madre de Dios — a biodiverse hotspot deep in the Peruvian Amazon, now being rapidly deforested by illegal gold mining.
Vargas, along with Bishop David Martinez in Puerto Maldonado, the capital of Madre de Dios state, have joined with NGOs and other environmental activists to lobby the historically environmentally-lax Peruvian government to act decisively to protect the already badly ravaged Madre de Dios region from the miners.
“This is a very important moment and we have to act,” Vargas said from Lima. “This is as important as the Mass or religious activity. Caring for the forests is essential to our faith.”
Untested political capital
IRI received a boost in August when its Faith for Forests declaration was endorsed at the Religions for World Peace assembly held in Bavaria, Germany, an interfaith organization that represents more than 900 million people in 125 countries.
“We were floored by the reception we received — the commitment across faiths and the recognition of indigenous rights in fighting deforestation,” said Corcoran of the event.
Today, partners to the Interfaith Rainforest Initiative include Religions for Peace, GreenFaith, the Parliament of the World’s Religions, the World Council of Churches, the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology, Norway’s International Climate and Forest Initiative, Rainforest Foundation Norway and the UN Environment Programme.
But IRI and its goals aren’t finding easy acceptance everywhere. Efforts to organize in Brazil and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have been slowed thus far by political leaders who are actively promoting deforestation as part of their pro-business policies. However, Corcoran reported that small lobbying successes are emerging in Colombia and Peru.
“IRI Colombia held a briefing with 11 members of Congress in July,” he said, and negotiated an outcome document “where government representatives in attendance agreed to include wording around a commitment to ending deforestation in the forthcoming National Development Plan for Colombia.”
The Rev. Fletcher Harper, an Episcopal priest and the executive director of GreenFaith, a U.S.-based interfaith environmental coalition, is cautious; he has seen religious interest in the environment wax and wane over the years. For all its ambition, IRI has its challenges, he said.
“There are places on the planet, Brazil being one of them, where religious groups are part of the problem, as well as the solution,” Harper noted. “You have some conservative Christians working in support of deforestation efforts.”
The administration of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, for example, is moving quickly to “develop the unproductive Amazon,” and is also heavily backed by Evangelical Christians.
Harper said that in places like Brazil and Indonesia, IRI would do well to “lift up the voices of religious moderates and conservatives” who represent a more politically potent segment of those countries’ religious populations. In Indonesia, he added, “there are moderate and conservative Islamic leaders who want to be involved in this [conservation] effort.”
One challenge to truly building momentum, Harper said, will be in getting religious leaders of all sects to use their political capital in a way that most haven’t yet tried.
“Does this effort stand a chance?” he asked. “I think it does. But around the world, that question is still up in the air. Religious groups have more potential for political influence than they have yet deployed. But it’s going to take a level of education, resolve and scale of action that is altogether larger and different than we’ve seen so far.”
Justin Catanoso, a professor of journalism at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, is a regular contributor to Mongabay. Follow him on Twitter @jcatanoso