Michelle Alexander, 2018. Photograph by Andrew Spear.
This essay is adapted from a speech given at the Palestine Festival of Literature on Nov. 1, 2023.
Good evening. My name is Michelle Alexander. I am a former visiting professor and current student at Union Theological Seminary. I am so glad to be with all of you tonight. There is nowhere on earth that I would rather be at this moment in time. Thank you all for showing up. The fact that so many people are here tonight from all different religions, races, ethnicities, and genders is itself a testament of hope. I know that so many of us are carrying a great deal of grief, fear, anger, internal conflict, and despair into this room. I hope that we can breathe together now that we have arrived, exhale, open our hearts to one another, and listen deeply to each other. We are here. We are many. And we are not alone.
On behalf of Serene Jones, the president of Union Theological Seminary, I want to welcome you to this beautiful space — James Chapel. Serene could not join us tonight, because she has a commitment in Washington, D.C. But she wishes she could be here, and she extends a very warm welcome to all of you.
It is no secret that many people are closing their doors to these kinds of vital conversations right now, fearful of what others might do, say, or think. I am therefore enormously grateful that Serene said yes when I asked her if the Palestine Festival of Literature could come to Union to use this sacred space. She said yes, knowing that her decision might invite criticism or rebuke, but she also knew that James Chapel has been the site of many, many difficult, courageous conversations — dialogues that are essential to our collective liberation and the creation of beloved community.
In fact, it was in this very space that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was originally scheduled to deliver his 1967 speech condemning the Vietnam War. The event was ultimately relocated to Riverside Church across the street, due to the overwhelming number of people who wanted to hear what he had to say and the space limitations here.
At Riverside, he stepped to the podium and said: “I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice. … A time comes when silence is betrayal. And that time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.”
Dr. King acknowledged how difficult it often is for people to speak against their own government, especially in times of war, and that the temptations of conformity may lead us toward a paralyzed apathy. He did not deny that the issues present in Vietnam were complex with long histories, and he recognized that there were ambiguities and that North Vietnam and the National Liberation Front were not paragons of virtue. But he said that he was morally obligated to speak for the suffering, helpless, and outcast children of Vietnam. He said:
He condemned the Vietnam War in unsparing terms. He decried the moral bankruptcy of a nation that does not hesitate to invest in bombs and warfare around the world but can never seem to find the dollars to eradicate poverty at home. He called for a radical revolution of values. He said:
Dr. King was condemned by virtually every major media outlet in America for taking this stand. Even within the civil rights movement, many imagined that he was a traitor to the cause.
And yet, we now know — deep within us we know — that he was right. He is as right today as he was back then about the corrupting forces of capitalism, militarism, and racism and how they lead inexorably toward war.
And he was right that our conscience must leave us no other choice when the oppressed, the poor, and the weak are under attack. When their homes are stolen or demolished. When they are forced to migrate and to live in unspeakable conditions — in open-air prisons or concentration camps — perpetually as refugees under occupation, we must speak.
We must speak when Jewish children are brutally killed in the name of liberation. When antisemitism and Islamophobia slip in through the back door of supposedly progressive spaces. When Palestinian children in refugee camps are bombed and killed. When schools and hospitals and entire neighborhoods are laid waste. We must speak. When international law is treated like a naïve suggestion, we must speak.
Yes, it may be difficult. Yes, we will make mistakes. We are human. And yes, we may be afraid.
But we must speak.
Countless lives and the liberation of all of us depend upon us breaking our silences.
What’s ultimately required, I think, in these times is not only activism or politics but also deeply personal spiritual work. As Grace Lee Boggs once said, “These are the times to grow our souls.”
All of us have a conscience that whispers to us, sometimes in the dark. The mandates of conscience that arise within each of us arise not out of loyalty to abstract principles or doctrines but from a place of deep knowing — a deep knowing that we owe something to each other as human beings, that we belong to each other, and that our freedom and liberation depend on one another. If I do not stand and speak when the bombs are raining down on you, then who will speak up for me, for my loved ones, when the tables are turned? As James Baldwin wrote to Angela Davis more than 50 years ago when she sat in a jail cell, “For, if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.”
James Chapel has long been the site of courageous, necessary conversations such as the one we will have tonight. And this space has been a place of joy, art, creativity, and healing. All of that will be in this room with us tonight.
Thank you for joining us. And welcome.
Michelle Alexander is a civil rights lawyer and advocate, a legal scholar, and the author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
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