Law professor recalls King's spirit in Pittsburgh

Says world 'considerably better,' but civil rights leader would be dismayed by gun violence, schools, justice system

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When John Brittain, a renowned civil rights attorney and a professor of law at the University of the District of Columbia, stood at the front of the East Liberty Presbyterian Church sanctuary on Sunday, he noted the "sacrifice" many were making to attend the 29th annual celebration honoring Martin Luther King Jr.

He said everyone in attendance was sacrificing time that could be spent watching NFL playoff games, mentioning the Steelers. The audience moaned.

"I was waiting for you to tell me the Steelers weren't in the playoffs this year," he said.

Holiday closings

  • All Pittsburgh, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania and federal government offices and courts are closed today for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

  • Post offices are closed, and regular mail is being neither picked up nor delivered.

  • State liquor stores and traditional banks are closed; however, Citizens Bank branches located in Giant Eagle stores are open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

  • Garbage pickup is being delayed one day.

  • The Port Authority of Allegheny County is operating regular bus, T and incline service; the Customer Service phone line (412-442-2000 or for TTY, 412-231-7007) is available from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. The Downtown Service Center is closed.

While he began the keynote address with a few jokes, his subject matter couldn't have been more serious. Mr. Brittain centered his remarks around King's April 4, 1967, speech, "Beyond Vietnam," an excerpt of which was read before Mr. Brittain's speech by two students from the Hope Academy Teen Theater Company.

"I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values," King told a crowd of 3,000 at the Riverside Church in New York City. "We must rapidly begin the shift from a 'thing-oriented' society to a 'person-oriented' society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered."

The yearly interfaith celebration, which is sponsored by the East End Cooperative Ministry and the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, featured musical performances and readings from the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Quran. Mr. Brittain's address was titled "Racism, Materialism and Militarism: Reflections on Dr. Martin Luther King's Famous Quote for Peace and Human Equality."

Mr. Brittain said that while the world is "a considerably better place" because of King's work, there is still much to be done, noting that he believes King "would not hesitate to condemn gun violence."

He said the civil rights leader would have been a strong advocate for increased restrictions and a ban on assault weapons. He then mentioned the set of executive orders to reduce gun violence signed by President Barack Obama last week, drawing cheers from the pews.

And while King would no doubt be pleased to see the election of the United States' first black president, Mr. Brittain said, the civil rights leader would also be dismayed to see the number of children still in segregated schools, a broken juvenile justice system and too many homeless veterans, among other things. He called the war on drugs a "failure" and said King would lament the fact that there are more African-Americans who are incarcerated than enrolled in four-year colleges.

Mr. Brittain said that while King is remembered for fighting for civil rights, he ultimately died fighting for economic rights. He said that if King were alive today, he would have expanded "that rainbow coalition" to include Muslims, immigrants, Latinos and others.

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Annie Siebert: or 412-263-1613. Twitter: @AnnieSiebert.


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