Almost 50 years ago, at the Lincoln Memorial, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., uttered those timeless words: “I have a dream.” He spoke with a powerful rhetoric that flowed naturally, yet emphatically.
“I can remember hearing the ‘I have a dream speech’ when I was young,” said Dr. Tom Auffenberg, chair of OBU’s department of history. King “was a spellbinding speaker, a very highly charismatic individual who galvanized a lot of people to fighting injustice.”
On Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day on Jan. 18, Ouachita students, faculty, staff and members of the Arkadelphia community gathered in McBeth Recital Hall for a common purpose: to commemorate this great American hero by participating in a panel discussion. Dr. Hal Bass, dean of the Sutton School of Social Sciences, moderated the panel, which addressed King’s life and legacy.
“It seems to me we are providing symbolic support for the values [King] embraced, values like social justice, human rights, equality, values that very much resonate within our mission as a Christian university,” Bass said. “I think in a sense we are also paying a little penance for the societal scent of racism that has so bedeviled our country through the centuries.”
Panelists included Auffenberg; Philip Williamson, a philosophy, political science and Christian studies triple major who also serves as senior class president; Stephen Johnson, an accounting and business administration double major and Student Senate president; Kendra Pruitt, a business administration major; and Connie Nelson,executive director of the Arkadelphia Area Chamber of Commerce.
Panelists and audience members alike spent time in remembrance of King and posed intriguing questions about the nature of King’s influence and the vestiges of that influence in modern society.
“His crusade for civil rights, combined with his non-violent approach, radically reshaped life for millions of Americans,” said Williamson. “It even inspired similar movements around the world.”
Johnson, who grew up in Brazil, complemented this idea by noting that Brazilians were also influenced by King’s involvement in the American civil rights movement.
Pruitt stated that all Americans owe gratitude to King. She described how he sacrificed his life for goals that he did not even see come to fruition, and she expressed her personal gratitude by stating that she would not be a Ouachita student today if it had not been for him.
Nelson expressed how King’s philosophies impacted her childhood. His legacy is both remarkable and personal to her, for she remembers attending segregated schools and drinking from “colored” water fountains. She described how his ideas continue to shape her actions today and how, in the same way King fought for “equality, truth and understanding,” Americans must continue to fight, because racial division is still a detrimental aspect of society. Racism, she explained, is not limited to tangible experience but exists within personal perception.
Before the discussion began, Bass noted that though this was a time to celebrate progress, it was also a time to raise difficult questions about modern society.
“Racism still exists but it is definitely better legally than it was when I was a young person,” Auffenberg said.”And the fact that we have an African-American president demonstrates that we have come a long way from where we were generations ago.”
Though progress has abounded and racism is not as readily apparent in modern America, many African-Americans experience racism on daily basis, in the form of underhanded comments or stereotypical assumptions.
Racism “is not necessarily institutionalized, but on a personal level some of the attitudes and stereotypes remain,” Williamson said. “For example, my friends have called me ‘white’ most of my life because I am articulate and intelligent. While it was not meant to be insulting, the statement fed off of a stereotype of black males as thugs. As my generation gets older, and even more so with our children, we will see some of those attitudes dissipate. I do fear, however, that our racism has and will continue to turn on Hispanics.”
Bass emphaiszed that though equality has been legalized, it is still important for people to actively pursue a mindset that sincerely and unequivocally promotes true values of equality.
Both Auffenberg and Bass noted the importance of how King, who had answered a call to ministry at a young age, in a sense, “spiritualized” the civil rights movement.
“He was very committed and compassionate, very hard working, very spiritual,” Auffenberg said. “And he took the civil rights movement in a spiritual direction, which I think was very important for its non-violence.”
King was not only a political activist, charismatic genius and mover of minds who brought Americans infinitely closer to the goal of extending equal opportunities. He was a Christian minister, a Christ-like man who selflessly put himself in danger for the sake of others, a man who was ultimately martyred.
“First and foremost [King] was a preacher,” Bass said. “And I think that we need to understand his life and work within the context of the calling that he embraced. I think he was obviously an activist. He was a very, very innovative thinker in the sense that he grasped that the non-violent civil disobedience tactics of Thoreau and Gandhi were the appropriate way to push for racial equality in the United States. And he was a tactical genius in that insight. To use a phrase from Lincoln, he called forth ‘the better angels of our natures.’ I think that’s an important part of his legacy. He tried to make us live up to our calling as Christians and also as citizens.”
By Hannah Holmes, Signal writer