Keynote speaker urges crowd to make King's life matter
Martin Luther King Jr. was far more than a mythologized figure who made a speech about his dreams on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial nearly 50 years ago.
He was a human being who was at times conflicted about his beliefs and who fought for civil rights alongside many ordinary people who did extraordinary things.
As we move forward through the 21st century, we need to remember King for who he was and teach our children to really know the man and the movement, according to the keynote speaker at the Worthington Martin Luther King Jr. celebration Jan. 21 at the Worthington United Methodist Church.
"It is time for us to think about ways to go forward into the future," said Hasan Kwame Jeffries, an Ohio State University history professor who spoke to the crowd of approximately 300 people.
The annual event is sponsored by the Worthington Community Relations Commission, in partnership with the Worthington Libraries and the Worthington City Schools. The program included music by the Capriccio vocal ensemble and the Capriccio youth choir and dance performed by the St. John A.M.E. Church Praise Dance Ministry.
Jeffries' speech drew a standing ovation. It was titled Making King Matter: An Appeal to Parents, Teachers, Preachers and Politicians.
The culturally dominant view that King was one speech made in one moment in time has done more to obscure than to reveal the man and all we can learn from his life and the times in which he lived, Jeffries said.
"What we have created is a King that is not very useful," he said.
To make King's life matter, parents need to do their homework and present him as more than a holiday, as a human being who struggled in school, experienced life as a Southerner living in the North and who went back to the South and became the reluctant head of the Montgomery civil-rights movement, he said. They should encourage children to think about the complexity of the man, he told parents.
Teachers, he said, should refrain from reducing King to one moment in time.
Instead, they should talk to their students about his slow embrace of nonviolence and how important it is to accept those values themselves, to choose to not settle disagreements with fists or guns.
"It is incumbent upon teachers to take up that task," Jeffries said.
Also stress that King was not the only leader of the civil-rights movement, he said.
"Put him in a broader context," he said.
Jeffries said he grew up as a Baptist and is troubled by some of what he sees in Christian churches today.
"Christian capitalism" en-courages people to make as much money as humanly possible. Instead, Christians need to take up King's message of serving the least among us, he said.
Rich and poor are entitled to basic civil rights and human rights, Jeffries reminded the crowd.
"It is important that every day we practice it," he said.
It does not matter who is in power in Washington as long as everyone is not committed to King's values of freedom and equal rights for all, he said.
More people live in poverty today than when King was assassinated in 1968; 2.5 million people are in prison; and too often, the violence that pervades our nation is tinged by racism, he said.
Jeffries' brother recently was elected to Congress. He called his brother, he said, and urged him to bring King back into the conversations in Washington.
That is not happening, he said. Elected officials discuss the middle class but won't touch the plight of the poor.
"You can't pay a politician to talk about poor people," Jeffries said.
He ended by urging everyone to make King matter by moving forward with a sense of brotherhood, sisterhood and freedom and equality.
"Continue on after today," he said.