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Into the waters

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Berea professor urges audience to leave their 'safe harbors'

By Stephen Lega

William Turner recited a poem early in his talk Sunday afternoon at First Baptist Church of Lebanon. It was a poem that had been popular with Howard Thurman (a former dean at Howard University), Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

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I am tired of sailing my little boat

Far inside the harbor bar -

I want to go where the big ships float

Out on the deep where the great ones are.

 

"I'm glad Martin Luther King was not intimidated by what happens when you go way out there," Turner said.

His talk was the center of the celebration at the church, and part of the larger celebration held in Lebanon Jan. 16. Earlier in the day, the Marion County Youth Center showed the film "Dr. Martin Luther King: A Historical Perspective, and more than 60 people participated in this year's march, that started at the Lebanon Post Office and concluded at the church. Inside, prayers and songs set the stage for Turner's talk.

Turner noted that water was common in many of King's speeches, just as it was common in the Bible, the Qur'an, the Torah and other holy books. Throughout his talk, Turner demonstrated how King chose risks rather than the safety of the harbor.

Turner opened by reminding everyone that King was not widely revered when he first came on the national scene in 1954. In fact, he was despised by many people, white and black, for what he said. The director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, even referred to King as "the most dangerous man in the world," Turner said.

"They called him an extremist. They called him a radical," Turner said. "If you think they talk bad about Barack Obama ..."

Laughter from the audience interrupted his thought.

Turner's point was that many people resisted King's message, including fellow members of the clergy. Turner noted that King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail had been written to other ministers.

While history has looked more favorably on King and his work than his contemporaries did, Martin Luther King Day is not enough to fulfill King's dream, according to Turner. He said for many people, the holiday has become nothing but a sophisticated Groundhog Day.

"Everybody sticks their head out of their little slot and see the sun and go back in, wait 'til next year to do the same thing again," Turner said.

Too many of us prefer the safety of the harbor, according to Turner. That harbor may come in the form of a gated community, a church where all the members are of the same race, technology or any number of things.

"I'm here to tell you today that Dr. King would have wanted you to come out there where he was," Turner said.

King could have had an easy life by just staying in his own safe haven, according to Turner. King was the son of a popular preacher in Atlanta who had a big church of his own. King went to Morehouse College at the age of 16 and continued his education at Boston University, which is where he met Coretta, his wife.

Instead of staying in the safe harbor of his father's church, King ventured out. He urged the audience to leave their harbors as well.

"You have to leave the harbor of complacency. Stop saying, I can make it on a C. Stop being complacent about being average. Stop laboring in the harbor of conformity, being like everybody else," Turner said.

He also noted some issues that can isolate people - issues like poverty, achievement gaps in schools and homophobia - which lead to excuses why we don't reach out to others. But Turner also reminded the audience that going out in the open waters may lead to criticism as well.

"If you get out there real far, people are gonna say, he ain't nothing but a troublemaker," Turner said. "They gonna say he's a mad, eccentric, deviant, a liability to our community and a dad-gum visionary."

Toward the end of the celebration, Marion County Superintendent Donald Smith addressed the audience with remarks that continued Turner's theme. Smith said many people disliked what King said in part because he was saying them long before people could see them happening.

"Here was a man who put his life on the line," Smith said.

And Smith encouraged people to learn from King's example.

"Do you have a cause worth dying for?" Smith said. "If you don't have anything that's worth dying for, then you're not doing anything for anybody."

Turner said King died 43 years ago, but he added that we still have deep waters that need to be crossed. That will involve risks, but that was also part of the poem he had cited earlier.

 

And should my frail craft prove too slight

For waves that sweep the billows o'er,

I'd rather go down in the stirring fight

Than drowse to death by the sheltered shore.

 

To Turner, living out King's dream isn't just a challenge, but a necessity to move forward.

 "I want you to make an honest attempt to live out the dream of Dr. King," Turner said. "And if you don't live out the dream of Dr. King, you are therefore forfeiting every right that you ever had to even hope and pray that you'll ever do any better."