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Theologian Challenges Audience at MLK Observation

By Eddy Ball
March 2008

"There are times when the immoral thing to do is to obey an unjust law," Seymour said of King's and Park's civil disobedience. "Just because something is legal doesn't necessarily mean that it's moral." (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
Wilson underscored the value of the MLK observance.
Wilson underscored the value of the MLK observance. "I think it's incredibly important for all of us to have events like this to celebrate Martin Luther King, his contributions to the American way of life and his contributions to all of us." (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
NIEHS Chemist Beby Jayaram, Ph.D., read over
NIEHS Chemist Beby Jayaram, Ph.D., read over "Lift Every Voice and Sign" as Seymour recited the song and related its lyrics to themes in African and African-American experience. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
The speaker's words engaged many in the audience, such as NIEHS Chief of Staff Ebony Bookman, Ph.D., shown here.
The speaker's words engaged many in the audience, such as NIEHS Chief of Staff Ebony Bookman, Ph.D., shown here. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
After giving Seymour an event poster, Collins opened the floor for questions. People in the audience asked about the current situation in Kenya and issues that members of the African-American Community are facing.
After giving Seymour an event poster, Collins opened the floor for questions. People in the audience asked about the current situation in Kenya and issues that members of the African-American Community are facing. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Theologian and ethicist James Seymour, D.Min., addressed a capacity audience in Rodbell Auditorium during the NIEHS Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday Observation January 30. Seymour's talk, "The Seamstress and the Scholar Who Changed America," was sponsored by the NIEHS Diversity Council and the Research Triangle Park Chapter of Blacks In Government (BIG). Seymour used the stories of Montgomery Fair Department Store seamstress Rosa Parks and religious scholar Martin Luther King Jr. to spur his audience to moral action.

The event opened with welcoming remarks by Acting Director Sam Wilson, M.D., who spoke of King's impact on the scientist's own life and elaborated on the event's theme, "A Day on, Not a Day Off." Wilson said of the minister and social activist, "Martin Luther King represented the kind of commitment to ideals and to courage that has always been an inspiration for me" and a model for efforts to effect change in today's world.

After a short film on the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial (http://www.mlkmemorial.org/)Exit NIEHS Website, which followed Wilson's introduction, U.S. Department of Agriculture employee and BIG member Gloria Chance introduced the keynote speaker. She described Seymour as a "friend and almost like family, ...a missionary at heart" and an important moral and ethical model for his students.

Seymour, who is chair of the Department of Religion at St. Augustine College Exit NIEHS Website(http://www.st-aug.edu/home1.html) in Raleigh, N.C., has spent his entire life involved in cross-cultural and interracial settings. Along with his academic duties, he also serves as executive director of the nonprofit Accumulated Resources of Kindred Spirits (ARKS) (http://www.arks.net/home.asp) Exit NIEHS Website, which provides resources to humanitarian, educational and religious projects in America, Africa and India.

The speaker referred to his nearly 30-year association with this transcontinental ministry, especially his experiences in several African countries, several times to illustrate "some of the things that Dr. King taught us and things we need to renew in thinking during days like this." Seymour's narrative of the lives and Parks and King was organized around four essential "life" questions that can stimulate an individual's understanding of self and help guide behavior:

  • What do you want, or what is your vision?
  • What is your passion, or how badly do you want it?
  • What are you willing to sacrifice to get what you want?
  • What do you do with what you achieve, or what is your moral obligation to give back to those who are coming behind you?

As Seymour told the stories of Parks and King, people who found themselves thrust into the center of the important events of their time, he provided answers to the four questions in their lives, with an emphasis on the last two. Parks, he explained, was willing to sacrifice her freedom and her livelihood by going to jail: "When she remained seated, that simple decision eventually led to the end of institutionalized segregation in the South." Leading a movement that changed America, King was arrested 25 times, faced vicious dogs, was brutally beaten by police and opponents at least twice, and made the ultimate sacrifice by laying down his life for his pursuit of social justice and equality for his brothers and sisters.

Describing King's ideology, based on the New Testament, and methodology, modeled on the nonviolent civil disobedience practiced so successfully by Mahatma Gandhi, Seymour said of the activist, "The Golden Rule made perfect sense to Martin Luther King Jr." According to the speaker, one of the movement's greatest obstacles to overcome, as King articulated in the famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail," Exit NIEHS Website (http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html) was the "appalling silence of good people." Addressing the audience directly, Seymour admonished, "You can't do everything..., [but] the one option you don't have is to do nothing" when encountering injustice.

Following his talk, Seymour was presented with a poster of the event by NIEHS Diversity Council Vice-Chair Brad Collins. BIG Exit NIEHS Website (http://www.bignet.org/) Chapter President Veronica Godfrey made closing remarks.

Godfrey thanked Seymour for
Godfrey thanked Seymour for "challenging us as a community to be better among ourselves and with ourselves" and Wilson for joining the audience for the event. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Building a Bridge of Understanding

Seymour teaches a course at St. Augustine's titled "Suffering, Perseverance and Hope: Three Themes of the African and African-American Experience." In 2005, he taught a seminar (http://www.st-aug.edu/faculty_staff/pdf/drseymour_panafrica.pdf)  Download Adobe Reader Exit NIEHS Website based on that course at the Pan African Christian College in Nairobi, Kenya, a nation that experienced tribal violence following what many outside monitors considered a stolen election. Despite that violence and the genocide elsewhere in the continent he knows and loves so well, Seymour is convinced that non-violent protest and moral action can bring change to the nations of Africa.

Seymour began his lecture as he does his courses with a song, "Lift Every Voice and Sing," written by the civil rights activist and author James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938). The words, Seymour observed, reflect the themes of suffering, perseverance and hope for Africans and African Americans alike:

Lift ev'ry voice and sing,
Till earth and heaven ring.
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise,
High as the list'ning skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.

Sing a song full of the faith that the dark
Past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the
Present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.

"Where there is crisis today [in African nations]," Seymour contended, "the church and people of faith are standing up and trying to make a difference."



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