Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., life and work remembered

(01-28-2008)

On Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, January 21, Adams State College students, faculty, staff and community members glimpsed at life before the civil rights movement and were introduced to the forces and personalities that helped shape the future of the United States.

Audiences were encouraged to shout "amen" and sing, "We Shall Overcome." A soul food feast of fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, cornbread, collard greens, and fried catfish was enjoyed by a diversity of people in the La Mesa Dining Hall; and opinions, thoughts and stories were shared about the meaning of King's life, and how the causes he died for are still relevant today, forty years later.

E.P. McKnight, actress, writer, and producer, performed "I Question America," depicting the life and times of Fannie Lou Hamer, a prominent woman of the Civil Rights Movement. "I chose to tell the story of Fannie because she gave her heart," McKnight said. "She was not about color - but about people."

Through her determination, strength of spirit, and commitment to civil rights, Hamer joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and became a field secretary; and co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which was instrumental in changing the state's laws on voting rights for Negros.

"Hamer coined the phrase, 'I am sick and tired of being sick and tired,'" McKnight said. "The Civil Rights Movement had many women and men, some who gave their lives, to bring about a change."

Hamer faced abject poverty growing up. During her quest for equal rights and voting rights for Negroes, she was jailed, beaten, her family lost their home, belongings, and jobs. Still she prevailed. "We need to stop thinking, 'us and them,' it is we," McKnight said. "Start where you are."

McKnight has been performing the piece for nine years. She said: "A lot has been accomplished since Dr. King's time, but we still have a long way to go."

Dr. Clenora Hudson-Weems, a published author and current professor of English at University of Missouri-Columbia, is committed to the story of Emmett Till, whose injustice and brutal murder, at age 14 in Mississippi, is said to have started the Civil Rights Movement, in 1955.

"Emmett Till became the sacrificial lamb," Hudson-Weems said. "If you can't protect a child, it is time to stop." She has written three books about Till and has lectured across the world.

Research for her books included talking to the defendant's attorney, Mr. John Whitten. "The first time I met Mr. Whitten I asked him what he thought of the case. He said, 'We always knew the men were directly involved, but it was our mission to prove them innocent.'"

Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam were tried for the murder of Till and, despite eye-witness accounts who saw them take the boy from his uncle's house, were declared innocent. The same verdict was reached when they were later tried for Till's kidnapping.

Eleven years after Hudson-Weems first visit with Whitten, she telephoned him. "I asked him the same question, there was silence on the line - then after a long pause, he said, 'Misery. I have always felt nothing but misery. Sometimes you do what you do to earn a living.'"

Hudson-Weems said it is her passion to make everyone understand "we are all people." She said: "We are mere mortals. We have all done something in the past we do not want others to know today."

She said some things need to end. "Maybe if we talk about the child enough, our sympathy will become empathy with this woman's only child who died a horrific death."

Till was dragged from his uncle's house by gunpoint four days after whistling at a white woman. His mutilated corpse was found in the Tallahatchie River, three days later. "It is a message to blacks, 'If it could happen once - it can happen again,'" Hudson-Weems said. "And it is a message to whites, 'Racism is not benign, it is malignant and it turns on you.'"

Hudson-Weems also spoke of King, and said racism is still a problem in the 21st century. "We can stop it, if each person decides to stop it," Hudson-Weems said. "The best tribute to Dr. King is to allow his dream become a reality."

Dr. Edward Crowther, chair of the history, government, and philosophy department, is a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. scholar. He lead the Carson Auditorium audience in a discussion on how, as individuals and as a community, we can best commemorate the live and work of King, after playing a recording of King"s "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech.

Crowther said King had started working for economic parity and human rights, as opposed to the more "comfortable civil rights" and was on a "quest for economic justice."

King's "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech is said to be prophetic, as if he knew his death was near. The following excerpts are from his final speech, "...I would be happy if I could live just a few years in the 20th century...it is no longer a choice of violence or nonviolence, it is nonviolence or nonexistence...I don't know what will happen now...I would like to live, but I am not concerned about that now...I have seen the promise land, I may not get there with you...I will carve a tunnel of hope out of the mountain of despair."

"Twenty-one hours and fifteen minutes later he was dead outside the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis," Crowther said. "Forty years later it is a very open question if his dream has been realized."

When Crowther called upon audience members to offer suggestions as to how to commemorate King's life, many spoke up. "We could start a march and walk through the hallways of the dorms," Kaycee Stamats, a senior theater major said. "We could get the students to leave their rooms and show we care."

Audience Ideas

Qua Robinson, a sophomore, said: "As a twenty-one-year-old, single parent, it is important for me to cultivate my child with the civil rights movement and the teachings of Dr. King. We need to stop being fake and start being real."

Keisha Covington, a sophomore psychology major, said: "We need to get everyone, not just black people, but everyone, to become active in the civil right movement. Everyone needs to push his (King's) nonviolent philosophy and be color-blind - love them all."

Jennifer Cook, coordinator for Student Life activities, organized and arranged for the events. "I believe having these types of educational events is crucial to his memorial," she said. "I hope that we continue this and expand our efforts by involving more ASC and off-campus folks, especially students, for next year's events."

The Martin Luther King, Jr., Day Celebration series was sponsored by the Cross-Cultural Center, President David Svaldi, Ken Marquez, dean of students, the Grizzly Activity Board, New Student Orientation, First-Year Interest Groups, First Year Experience & Engagement, and Associated Students & Faculty (AS&F).

By Linda Relyea