Ijeoma Oluo
Jan 10 · 6 min read

I was asked to give the keynote speech for King County’s Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration held today. For those who were unable to attend, below is the speech I gave.

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.”

That is our theme for today’s event. As someone who lives in this county and has lived in the greater Seattle area for 36 years, I’ve been reflecting on these words and what they mean to me here, in this place and time.

But as I was reflecting on these words for this speech, I was first brought to the invite I was sent to speak here.

I was invited to help “celebrate” the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Celebrate.

Celebrate is a very specific word. It is a word that is often used when I’m asked to speak in January and February about Dr. King (and yes, I’m only asked to speak on Dr. King in January and February).

But in thinking of what it looks like to speak with truth and live in the love of the great Dr. King — celebrate is not the word that comes to mind.

When 25% of my brothers and sisters live below the federal poverty level — in an area with one of the highest costs of living in the country — celebrate is not the word that comes to mind.

When black people make up 6% of our population and 44% of the population of our youth detention centers — celebrate is not the word that comes to mind.

When Hispanic people make up 9% of our population and 19% of the population of our youth detention centers — celebrate is not the word that comes to mind.

When Indigenous people make up less than 1% of our population and almost 6% of the population of our youth detention centers — celebrate is not the word that comes to mind.

When the average black household in King County makes just $35,000 while the average white household in King County makes over $75,000 — celebrate is not the word that comes to mind.

When 17% of expecting Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders in King County are lacking in prenatal care — celebrate is not the word that comes to mind.

When 9% of expecting Indigenous people in King County are lacking in prenatal care — celebrate is not the word that comes to mind.

When 8% of expecting black people in King County are lacking in prenatal care — celebrate is not the word that comes to mind.

When the suspension and expulsion rate for black students is four times higher than white students and two times higher for Latinx and Indigenous students than white students — celebrate is not the word that comes to mind.

When I see budgets to build new youth detention that far outweigh budgets to reduce youth detention — celebrate is not the word that comes to mind.

When children of color make up 1/3 of our child population but over half of our population in foster care — celebrate is not the word that comes to mind.

As I watch friend after friend, community member after community member, be pushed out of their homes and away from the safety, security, and resources of their community by gentrification, further solidifying all of the frightening statistics I just gave — celebrate is not the word that comes to mind.

No — as a country, as a county — as a society — I do not think we get to celebrate yet. I do not think Dr. King would want to celebrate either.

So perhaps there’s another word. A word that I wish came up more often when these celebrations are being planned. A word that I wish came up more often whenever Dr. King is referenced.

Honor.

What does it look like to honor Dr. King? What does it look like to honor his words that were chosen for today: “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.”

I have given truth. Truth that does not care about your excuses. Truth that does not care about your complications. Truth that says that for over 400 years our people have been abused. That for over 400 years our children have not been allowed to be children. Truth that says that this county has failed, and is failing, its people of color every day, in countless ways. It is a truth that cannot be argued. A truth that must be reckoned with and accounted for.

I’m sorry if I’ve ruined your celebration with the truth.

But there is more to the Dr. King quote. You may be asking, where is the love? The unconditional love that Dr. King spoke of?

First let me say that it is the unconditional love that brings this truth here. That has me here in front of a large group of people saying what I’m pretty sure they don’t want to hear. Love that has me risking all of our comfort to say what absolutely must be said. Love for my family, for my people, for our history, for our potential. Love for this great pacific northwest that I desperately want to love me back.

So what does it look like for this county to live in the unconditional love that Dr. King spoke of?

It looks like truly engaging with communities of color, investing in communities of color.

It looks like honoring all of the ways in which, despite all of the overwhelming odds against us, we have survived and continue to survive.

It looks like supporting the work we are already doing instead of insisting that you know what is best for us.

It looks like investing in our children’s education instead of incarceration.

It looks like honoring and protecting our communities of color as actual communities that need to be together and not dispersed to meet the desires of a vision of progress that has never included us.

It looks like holding our schools accountable for not seeing our children as children. Our police accountable for seeing our people as violent. Our judges and prosecutors accountable for seeing our people as irredeemable.

It looks like seeking out and targeting the White Supremacy in your meetings, your management structure, your goals, your votes, your budgets.

There are so many ways to live and work in the love that Dr. King spoke of. There are so many ways in which you must. Because we cannot give back childhoods lost. We cannot put families back together. We cannot bring back lives lost. Love is an action. And you must act.

That is what it looks like to honor Dr. King.

Perhaps, if we had done more to honor him over the years, I would feel like celebrating right now.

I will say to those of you in this audience who have been working every day — often against your peers — to honor Dr. King — thank you. I see you. You are appreciated even if it is not heard enough — even if in this very speech our ongoing emergency has called me to focus on what is not being done instead of what you are doing. This is another thing that White Supremacy has taken from us.

Your work is necessary — and I truly hope that others here today will join you in your efforts, will support you in the ways that you need to do the work that we all need. I know that you are working toward a day when this will truly be a day of celebration. I do believe that one day we will be able to celebrate together. I have to believe that. That is what we are fighting for. A county that lives in unarmed truth, and has unconditional love — for all of us.

Ijeoma Oluo

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Come for the feminist rants..stay for the selfies and kid quotes. Inclusive feminism here.

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