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Life and Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. - January 2011

Early this morning, I addressed a group of students who were honoring Dr. King by participating in a day of service.  I launched the day of service with the following statement. 


Dr. King truly believed that a life worth living is one that is lived for others.  As you embark on your day of service, I too want you to embrace Dr. King's belief.  As a part of a community, you must participate in the well-being of that community and there is no better way to effect community change than to serve.  Embedded in Dr. King's life was the mantra service before self.  This may be far too noble a notion for the service you are undertaking this morning, but I do want you students to recognize that by getting a college education you will be allowed access to opportunities. These opportunities will secure you privileges that others cannot access.  If this world was based on equality in which all would have the same means of access and opportunity, then these service days may not be necessary. Dr. King also quoted, "that it is difficult to pick yourself up by your bootstraps when you have no boots." As you conduct your service work today, please do not do this work based on some sort of missionary zeal to help the unfortunates, but on your own altruistic stances in which you recognize that to whom much is given, much is required.  As you interact with many people throughout the day, you may encounter people who are different then you, be it race, gender, ethnicity, religious affiliation, affectional orientation, socio-economic status, age, or ability.  It will be important to follow these guidelines for courageous conversations:

  • Speak your truth
  • Accept and expect non-closure
  • Focus on local and immediate
  • Experience discomfort
  • Stay engaged


I revisited this statement because there are many parallel themes that I want to address tonight.  The following themes are reflective of the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King.

  • A life worth living is one that is lived for others
  • Service before self
  • To whom much is given, much is required


I also want to amplify the guidelines for courageous conversations as an organizational structure for today's address.


Speaking my Truth:

As Cornel West wrote in Race Matters:

Race is the most explosive issue in American life precisely because it forces us to confront the tragic facts of poverty and paranoia, despair and distrust. In short, a candid examination of race matters takes us to the core of American democracy. And the degree to which race matters in the plight and predicament of fellow citizens is a crucial measure of whether we can keep alive the best of this democratic experiment we call America.


When I was asked to make this speech, I instantly thought about Dr. King's death and the reaction in my home when this occurred.  I also thought about historical and nostalgic events that were precursors to Dr. King's death that made an indelible impression on the life of a young, Black boy growing up in the South.  I was eight at the time and I remembered my mother crying and my dad praying.  My five older siblings were equally as grave and I could not fathom what was affecting my usually stoic and dignified family.  On this day, emotions took control and my parents, like my Sumter, SC community, on April 4, 1968 were grieving.  The King was dead!  Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed.  This moment was the emotional demise of a people.


Local and Immediate

I grew up with Dr. King in my life.  We sang the song about our modern day saviors coupled with our saviors from the past.  The song by Dion was about Abraham, Martin, and John “ Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy." 


Has anybody here seen my old friend Abraham?
Can you tell me where he's gone?
He freed a lot of people,
But it seems the good they die young.
You know, I just looked around and he's gone.


Anybody here seen my old friend John?
Can you tell me where he's gone?
He freed a lot of people,
But it seems the good they die young.
I just looked around and he's gone.


Anybody here seen my old friend Martin?
Can you tell me where he's gone?
He freed a lot of people,
But it seems the good they die young.
I just looked around and he's gone.


Didn't you love the things that they stood for?
Didn't they try to find some good for you and me?
And we'll be free
Some day soon, and it's a-gonna be one day...


Anybody here seen my old friend Bobby?
Can you tell me where he's gone?
I thought I saw him walkin' up over the hill,
With Abraham, Martin and John.


The picture of these three people, who were instrumental in the lives of Black folk, was in profile on the stovepipe cover in my home.  For those of you who might not know, a stovepipe is an outlet from the chimney in which you connect a potbellied stove.  This was the stove that once provided fuel for our family home.  When we replaced the stove with furnace heat, the device that was purchased to cover the stove pipe gape was a stove pipe cover.  These pieces were crafted as art pieces for the home.  Although I digress in explaining a stove pipe cover, this was a symbol of Black pride to have these three depicted close to the hearth which was close to the heart of a Southern Black family.  Besides this picture and those of relatives, the only other picture was that of Christ on the cross. I tell you all about this memory to emphasize that my connection with Dr. King was visceral, local, and immediate to my family and community. 


Experience the Discomfort

After his death, my father felt defeated when it came to ending segregation in the South.  Even though it was 1968, the South still had segregated schools after the passing of Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas in 1954which stated that schools were not separate, but equal.  I remained attending a segregated school until my middle school experience in 1974 which was 20 years after the law was passed.


My sister, 14 years my senior, was a very big supporter of the non-violence work of Dr. King.  She attended South Carolina State College in Orangeburg, SC.  South Carolina State was the historically Black state college of SC.  Historically Black colleges were created to give Black students an opportunity to attend college in the South because the state university, the University of South Carolina did not allowed Blacks to attend.  During the tumultuous 60s, my sister was a resistance marcher against segregation and attended an integration event at the Whites-only Bowling Alley in Orangeburg, South Carolina.  This event caused violent opposition by the Whites at the alley.  My sister and her college friends were pushed, shoved, and spat upon.  Local highway patrolmen were brought in to keep the peace and arrested several of the Black college students, but none of the White agitators. These unjust acts created additional protesting from the Black students on campus as they argued for justice and the basic rights of attendance to local establishments. The Orangeburg massacre [1] was an incident on February 8, 1968, in which nine South Carolina Highway Patrol officers in Orangeburg, South Carolina, fired into a crowd protesting local segregation at a bowling alley. Three men were killed and twenty-eight more injured, [2] hitting most of them in their backs. After the shooting stopped, two others were injured by police in the aftermath and one, a pregnant woman, later had a miscarriage due to the beating. Many of you may not know of this protest, but may have remembered similar slayings of White students at Kent State in Ohio and Black students at Jackson State in Mississippi.


Expect and Accept Non-Closure:

These early memories of historical events and of the life of Dr. King shaped my consciousness towards civil rights.  In the 1960s, Americans who knew only the potential of "equal protection of the laws" expected the president, the Congress, and the courts to fulfill the promise of the 14th Amendment. In response, all three branches of the federal government--as well as the public at large--debated a fundamental constitutional question: Does the Constitution's prohibition of denying equal protection always ban the use of racial, ethnic or gender criteria in an attempt to bring social justice and social benefits?  To this end, in 1964 Congress passed Public Law 82-352 (78 Stat. 241) or the Civil Rights Act. The provisions of this civil rights act forbade discrimination on the basis of sex as well as race in hiring, promoting, and firing.


The term civil rights for this country may be archaic because as American our basic rights of liberty, justice, and freedom are legislatively provided and legally protected for all races of people and here in Iowa we are progressively assuring these rights for people regardless of affectional orientation.  These secured rights are all cherished victories of Dr. King's legacy, but the work is continuous and what was once a focus on civil rights must now be an emphasis on social justice.  Social justice generally refers to the idea of creating an egalitarian society or institution that is based on the principles of equality and solidarity, that understands and values human rights, and that recognizes the dignity of every human being. As we move further into the 21st Century, we must continue to strive for social justice and equality without repeating the mistakes of the past or revisiting those events that separate or divide.


Stay Engaged

One of my favorite sayings is that we must honor the past in order to launch the future.  As the dean of the College of Education, this saying is important because teacher education at UNI has a rich and wondrous history.  If I am to make a difference in education, I must understand the context in which I live and work.  In the context of the celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, we can honor the past by honoring the critical importance of his teachings.  At the King Center in Atlanta, Georgia, the programming focuses on the following six principles of non-violence that I know we can stay engaged in, in our own local and immediate context.

 1. Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people.

  • It is active nonviolent resistance to evil.
  • It is assertive spiritually, mentally, and emotionally.
  •  It is always persuading the opponent of the justice of your cause.

2. Nonviolence seeks to win friendship and understanding.

  •  The end result of nonviolence is redemption and reconciliation.
  • The purpose of nonviolence is the creation of the Beloved Community.

3. Nonviolence seeks to defeat injustice, not people.

  • Nonviolence holds that evildoers are also victims.

4. Nonviolence holds that voluntary suffering can educate and transform.

  • Nonviolence willingly accepts the consequences of its acts.
  • Nonviolence accepts suffering without retaliation.
  • Nonviolence accepts violence if necessary, but will never inflict it.                                            
  • Unearned suffering is redemptive and has tremendous educational and

Transforming possibilities.

  • Suffering can have the power to convert the enemy when reason fails.

5. Nonviolence chooses love instead of hate.

  • Nonviolence resists violence of the spirit as well as of the body.
  • Nonviolent love gives willingly, knowing that the return might be hostility.
  • Nonviolent love is active, not passive.
  • Nonviolent love does not sink to the level of the hater.
  • Love for the enemy is how we demonstrate love for ourselves.
  • Love restores community and resists injustice.
  • Nonviolence recognizes the fact that all life is interrelated.

6. Nonviolence believes that the universe is on the side of justice.                                              

  • The nonviolent resister has deep faith that justice will eventually win; therefore, we must stay engaged. 


To honor the past and to stay engaged, we can revisit the truths spoken by Dr. King as he wrote his second most seminal document, Letter from a Birmingham Jail.


A spoken TRUTH:    I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial "outside agitator" idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.


As we think about Dr. King's life and legacy, we must remember that his most powerful words were his thoughts about the future of his children in his August 28, 1963, I Have a Dream speech.  I too believe that the children are our future. We must teach them well and let them lead the way.  With this said, let's hear from one of our future leaders. 


Zoe, my guest, is a first grade student at Cunningham Elementary.  She is a dynamic and precocious reader and I am so pleased that she has agreed to capsule my address with a reading of Martin's Big Word by Doreen Rappaport.  The book she will read won the Coretta Scott King Award for Non-Violence and the Caldecott Honor Book Award.


Let's give applause to Zoe for being here to read to us.