Remarks By A.G. Schneiderman At The National Action Network’s Annual MLK Day Public Policy Forum

News from Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
January 16, 2017
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REMARKS BY A.G. SCHNEIDERMAN AT THE NATIONAL ACTION NETWORK’S ANNUAL MLK DAY PUBLIC POLICY FORUM

NEW YORK – Attorney General Eric. T Schneiderman shared the following remarks at the National Action Network’s annual King Day Public Policy forum:

"Thank you. Thank you Rev, thank you to the National Action Network, thank you for uniting us so many times in so many struggles. To all my colleagues, my colleagues in government, but especially to the activists, especially to the activists who are here with us today, our brothers and sisters in labor, the clergy.

Listening to people’s remarks this weekend about Martin Luther King, it occurred to me that today I would say something a little bit different than what I had planned to say. And I want to raise what, for some, may be an uncomfortable point. To a certain extent we have allowed the commemoration of Dr. King’s life to become a kind of homogenized, pasteurized version of Dr. King, right. There’s been an effort to rewrite history, to make it seem as though he was respected and beloved by all – rich and poor, black and white, and that the civil rights movement was a big feel good experience of hundreds of thousands of people celebrating. That is a disservice to the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King.

So let us remind ourselves – he was a revolutionary. He was a revolutionary. He was a peaceful revolutionary, but he was a revolutionary in the tradition of a nation founded by revolutionaries. And it is an insult to his legacy to do this kind of Hallmark-card version of Dr. King as someone who everybody loved and who went, you know, was just a gentle man. He was a nonviolent man, but he led an incredibly aggressive movement of resistance. And today, in 2017, as we people are upset and people are distraught, let us look at the odds he faced and look at the revolutionary approach he took. Refusing to yield to oppression no matter what the personal cost and refusing to let off the hook those who would turn their eyes away and avoid the conflict.

So, let me say that people remember him as preaching nonviolent resistance and they remember the term nonviolence and that’s instilled into us. But the level of resistance was incredibly aggressive. Dr. King was jailed fourteen times. He was assaulted. He was bombed. He was stabbed in the chest. He knew that resistance brings violence from oppressors. He understood that. And we have to understand that too. The challenge to America right now is people are waking up, distraught with the prospects of a president who many feel will seek to undermine our fundamental commitment to justice, equality and freedom. People are upset and wondering what to do and looking for a quick fix. There is no quick fix. There is the long hard road Dr. King showed us how to follow.

Today let us commit ourselves as he did to never backing down from aggressive resistance to oppression. Senator Schumer leads the opposition, but behind the back of the opposition must be a resistance. There’s a big difference. And today I would like to share with you my notion that this is not a time to despair and point fingers at each other. But, this is a time to honor the revolutionary tradition Martin Luther King so well embodied. Thomas Jefferson said, ‘Every generation of Americans needs its own revolution’. Now I suppose the President-elect might say Thomas Jefferson was all talk and no action, but his words are important now than ever because, brothers and sisters, the tradition of America is not to remain static. It’s not to try and preserve the status quo. The tradition of America is a tradition of movements that have sought to bring us ever closer to our national ideals of freedom and justice and prosperity. The abolition movement, the women’s suffrage movement, the labor movement, the civil rights movement – all were met with resistance, with oppression, with violence, and yet generations of Americans stood up with much longer odds than we face right now in 2017. So let’s not feel sorry for ourselves and let’s not bemoan the fact that we’re in this situation. This is the true legacy of Dr. King and this is our obligation as Americans.

Never forget that Dr. King wrote that the real threat to racial progress came not from vicious racists, but from those who remained passive, who were quote ‘more devoted to order than to justice, who preferred a negative peace which was the absence of tension to a positive peace, which is the presence of justice.’

Get ready for some tension. Relax into the tension. There is nothing wrong with standing up for the principles that make our country great and offering an active resistance to those who would turn the clock back and move us towards less equality and less justice. That is an un-American tradition that we must reject at every turn.

Now, now, ladies and gentlemen, I am your lawyer. I believe in the rule of law, but I understand that our laws were designed and our constitutional system to move forward. Uniquely among all nations we were designed with a system where we knew we had to make the laws better as we started this project. And through these different movements we have made advance after advance. We’ve become more equal, become more just. In the last thirty years or so, I feel that of too many Americans have lost that zeal for the perpetual revolution that Thomas Jefferson envisioned and that Dr. King embodied. It is time to get back on that path.

Now I will use every tool in our legal and constitutional toolbox to protect New Yorkers. As the Rev said, if the federal government retreats, there is a lot we can do at the state level and New York must unify as a model. I am proud of the fact that I was the lead sponsor of, a number of years ago, when we repealed the Rockefeller drug laws and then New York has seen crime go down while our prison population has dropped by thousands and recidivism has gone down. I’m proud of being the, uniquely in the country, a special prosecutor who takes cases where unarmed civilians are killed by law enforcement officers. So there’s an independent statewide unit, free of any charges of bias or conflict of interest that have played some local prosecutions. And I am proud of the fact that if the Labor department, whose nominee to be Secretary of Labor appears to have run a business whose business model was wage theft, stops protecting American workers  - we will step into the frame. We have recovered millions of dollars for thousands of workers who were victims of wage theft in fast food restaurants, like those run by the Secretary of Labor nominee. We will not back down from this fight.

And ladies and gentlemen, let us remember Dr. King. Not as the benign statesmen revered by all that they would have us believe, remember him as. Let us remember him as someone who was an activist, who was an agitator, who aggressively stood up to oppression and refused to back down.

There’s only so much that the law can do and we need a movement to propel the law forward. Dr. King famously said, ‘It may be true that the law cannot make the man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me and that’s pretty important.’

So let us use every legal tool available to us, let us say no to violence, let us say no to discrimination. Let us adhere to these truly American principles of moving forward together. And as we build the next great American movement for social and economic justice, let us reach out to those who may not have voted the way we did. This is an important point and I want to conclude with this, because Dr. King preached this relentlessly. There are those who see division where they should see unity. There are those who are going to see their healthcare going away, they’re losing their homes, their schools’ declining – we have to be open to bringing them along with us. We have to invite them to join our movement.

When he was in the Birmingham jail, Dr. King would talk to his white jailers and ask them, ‘How much are you getting paid?’ And when they’d tell him, he’d say, ‘that’s how much you’re getting paid?  You should be marching with us.’ Even in jail, he opened the door to building and expanding a broader coalition. So we have to march, we have to pray, we have to speak up. We have to have the backs of all those who do speak up and send the message that we will not allow this new rhetoric to become normalized. We will step. We will stand. We will walk. Remember the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched alongside Dr. King in Selma. He once wrote, ‘Even without words, our march was worship. I felt that my legs were praying.’

So ladies and gentlemen, as we honor the revolutionary American in the great tradition of American revolutionaries that was Martin Luther King, let us limber up because our legs are gonna have to do a lot of praying in the months ahead. And I promise that I will be there with you every step of the way. Thank you very much. God bless you all."

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