The Rev. Dr. Joseph Lowery put the legacy of his dear friend, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., in perspective Monday with great humor and insight. He covered a range of topics during the 20th annual United Negro College Fund/General Mills Martin Luther King breakfast. The 88-year-old minister, founder and former president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and King mentor, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and gave the benediction during the historic inauguration of Barack Obama as the nation's first African-American president. The following are edited excerpts from his speech and news conference in Minneapolis.
On the King holiday, legacy: In some ways, the day has been hijacked. Certain forces have sanitized and dimmed the pain and suffering that characterized the struggle. Martin didn't just sit around dreaming; he was more than a glorified social worker. He was a nonviolent revolutionary.
On Obama's first year: I heard the president recently gave himself a B-plus. I would agree, but I wish we could send 30,000 Peace Corps types to Afghanistan -- turn teachers, agriculturists loose in the country to get our message across in a different way. Every problem does not have a military solution. ... What we are doing there [now] is not working. And what frightens me is that [with Iraq and Afghanistan] we have created even more terrorists of younger and younger ages.
On civil rights: We've made a lot of progress, but there is a long way to go. I have a sermon called "Everything has changed and nothing has changed.'' We have 300 black mayors, a black president and yet within the shadows of where those city halls stand and the capitol, there are still many people living in poverty with little hope. It's paradox.
We've made the least progress in two areas -- criminal justice and economics. In 2010, the criminal justice system is similar to what it was in 1910, especially in small communities. And in 1957, the black median income was 57 percent [of that of whites]. Now we've only moved about 10 percent in 53 years.
On affirmative action: It is a mistake to forsake affirmative action. It is not preferential treatment -- it is intentional action to close the gaps. Those (economic, education) gaps didn't get there by accident or osmosis. They won't close unless we intentionally do something to change it.
On moving forward: [Singer, actress] Beyonce said something that sums it up. She said every time she hears, or sees Barack Obama she wants to be smarter, more involved. Martin used to say we're a 10-days nation. We elected Obama and for 10 days after that we were excited, then it's back to business as usual. The fact that this nation has elected a black president ought to make us work harder and be smarter to make the country even better.