After many decades on Beacon Hill in the State House, former South End State Rep. Byron Rushing was honored for his service to the community at the 49th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast with the True Compass Award – and it was a time that the former state legislator used to encourage older adults to tell younger people about their true experiences related to Dr. King.
Rushing, a practiced orator always with an eye to history, implored on people in the audience more than 51 years old to share their true, personal experiences related to Dr. King will all of those who were not alive to know the man and what he did.
“Tell the people under 51 that you know what that all was like,” he said. “If we are going to move forward, we cannot move forward praying to a saint. If we are going to move forward, we move forward with the reality of struggle. You know that story. You know that story better than any monument we ever put up. Tell that story as you experienced it so all the rest of the people who were not here to experience it will gain the strength of the reality of that life and how it brought us to the day we are in. Tell that story.”
Rushing brought home his address with those words, leaving the podium in silence as people thought hard about the challenge.
The annual MLK Breakfast was held at the South Boston Convention Center on Monday, but its roots are firmly planted in the South End. The breakfast is the oldest in the nation, and was conceived by Union United Methodist Church on Columbus Avenue in the South End and St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church on Tremont Street. This year, the Breakfast Committee was chaired by Rev. Jay Williams of Union United and Rev. Dr. Monrelle Williams of St. Cyprian’s.
Both bestowed the honor on Rushing, naming him this year’s True Compass Award winner.
Rushing said he encouraged those who lived through the era of Dr. King to tell their true experiences with what he said and did – and to be honest about it.
“Most important, when you tell that story, please struggle to tell the truth,” he said. “Try to remember when you first agreed with something you heard MLK say and what it was. Try to remember something that MLK said or wrote that meant something to you that did not happen in August of 1963. I would love it if we never said that (‘I have a dream’) speech again. Try to tell the story so that Martin Luther King is not made mythic – that he can somehow be real. Tell the story of when it first dawned on you that no women got to talk at the March on Washington and what that meant when you thought about it.”
Likewise, he challenged listeners to be honest about what they thought of King when he denounced the war in Vietnam – something many publications and organizations criticized him for doing.
“Tell the story of how you felt when Martin Luther King said the war in Vietnam is wrong and sinful,” he said. “Were you happy? Were you glad your children were hearing that? Or were you like the New York Times and NAACP that denounced him for saying that?… Tell the truth about your understanding of what he was saying when he said the Civil Rights Movement was bigger than colored people, or as he would have said, was bigger than negroes. It meant working with everyone who was oppressed in the world.” Rushing served as the state representative for the South End, Lower Roxbury and Fenway for 45 years before being defeated in the September Primary Election last fall. He is also involved as a lay leader in the Episcopal Diocese.