As people throughout the world know, today marks 50 years since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his iconic “I have a Dream” speech in front of an estimated 250,000 people who were also attending the March on Washington.
This morning, Dunreith, dear friends Lisa Cook and Jim Peters, and I traveled to St. George´s School, where I presented at Angelica Garrido’s invitation about Dr. King´s life and legacy.
Located on the outskirts of the city, St. George´s is an institution which has both a rich tradition of working for social justice and many very wealthy students. The campus, which is nestled near the base of the Andean cordillera, has clean and cool air that felt markedly different than what we breathe in our Providencia neighborhood, about 2,000 students, many of whom walk around in uniforms with blue sweater, a tie and either a skirt or slacks, and acres and acres of grounds and many newly constructed buildings.
The film was the subject of Machuca, St. George´s alumnus Andres Wood´s film about the school that depicted the harrowing days before, and just after, the Sept. 11 coup in 1973. Dedicated to Father Gerardo Whelan, the movie centers on the relationship between a white and comparatively wealthy student at the school and a much poorer, indigneous boy who joins the ranks of Georgians.
Father Jose Ahumada, the current rector at St. George´s, graduated from the school in 1972 Father Ahumada lived with Father Whelan, who played a major role in his becoming a priest, around the time of the coup.
Ahumada was one of more than 80 ninth- and tenth-grade students and faculty members who filed into the auditórium for the presentation.
I explained that I wanted the session to be useful for them, that it should be a conversation and that I wanted to start with hearing what they knew about Dr. King.
The request elicited quite a bit of Spanish-language conversation, but no volunteers for what felt like closet to a minute.
Eventually, a short boy named Andres raised his hand and shared that Dr. King was someone who died while fighting for justice.
We gave Andres a round of applause.
Another student offered that Dr. King believed in working for change in a non-violent manner and that he struggled against segregation before I began the discussion in earnest.
I took the group through a chronology of King´s life, starting with his birth in 1929 in Atlanta to a middle-class family with a tradition and history of preachers. I explained that, growing up in the segregated South, his family were able to shield him for a while from some of the system´s painful incidents.
When that inevitably happened, King, who had a positive sense of himself, was wounded but not broken.
Like generations of Morehouse students, King was exhorted on a daily basis to take his education, go out in the world and work to make it better.
He did not initially heed the call.
Rather, he got his doctorate in systematic theology at Boston University and married Coretta Scott before moving to sleepy Montgomery, Alabama.
Rosa Parks was arrested about a year after King arrived there.
While he rose to national prominence during the ensuing Montgomery Bus Boycott, King was initially chosen by leaders in the community to be the face of the movement because he was new in town and had no known enemies.
That soon changed.
King started receiving death threats on a daily basis-threats he lived with for the remainder of his life.
They were not idle.
During the boycott, someone bombed King´s house in an effort to kill him and his family.
An angry crowd gathered at King´s house, ready to take violent action if he gave the word to do so.
Instead, he instructed them to act in a nonviolent manner.
I did make the point that King and other members of the civil rights movement´s endorsement of nonviolence, especially during this period, was not absolute. A number of top members of the movement carried guns with them.
Eventually, the boycotters won a victory in the Supreme Court, and another part of the wall of legal segregation had
been chipped away. (The court had already ruled in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case the year before that the doctrine of “Separate but equal” did not hold legal wáter.)
The fight continued over the next eight years.
King played a critical role, but was one of hundreds of thousands of people who participated in the movement, which had starkly different visions of how to achieve social justice.
Sometimes, he experienced setbacks, as in 1961 in Albany, Georgia, when Sheriff Laurie Pritchett blunted the movement’s efforts to spark dramatic confrontations that would often lead to calls for change.
In 1958, King was nearly killed by Izola Curry, who stabbed him with a letter opener.
King was told later that he would have died had he sneezed.
In the final address he ever gave, he talked about how glad he was that he did not sneeze, and what, because he lived, he had been privileged to see.
The March on Washington was one such event.
I showed a clip to the students of King´s legendary speech, but focused on his core message that 100 years after Lincoln, in whose shadow he and the other marches had gathered, had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, black people were not free.
The section starts at 2:30.
When it comes to black people, the check based on the country´s architect´s lofty promises had come back marked “Insufficient funds,” King said to the roar of the crowd.
We talked about how King continued to push on, winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, encouraging crowds as they marched from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, fighting against unfair housing conditions in Chicago in 1966, speaking out against the Vietnam War in 1967, and, finally, working for the Poor People´s Campaign in April 1968.
It was there that he gave his final speech, one in which he made it clear that he had understood, and accepted, long before that he might not live a long life.
I may not get there with you, he declared, as the crowd in a Memphis church cheered and clapped, but I know that we as a people are going to make it to the Promised Land.
James Earl Ray shot King dead with a sniper the next day.
Before moving to King´s legacy, I made the points that he had made enormous contributions to the country, but was not a perfect man and did not do so alone. Youth and music both played major roles in the gains that were realized during those years and afterward.
I asked the students to define legacy.
One young man answered that it´s what influence remains after you retire or die.
We talked about King´s family, his books, his speeches, the hundreds of schools and streets and even a national holiday that are named after him.
I also encouraged the young people to think about the influence of people who King inspired and from whom he learned.
People like Bayard Rustin, a gay oragnizer and activist who pulled together the logistics of the March on Washington in just about two months.
People like Father Michael Pfleger, who witnessed the hatred that King and other marchers endured in his home neighborhood in Chicago and who has dedicated his entire life to serving the community and improving social conditions.
And people like personal hero Leon Bass, a black veteran who served in the segregated United States Army, witnessed the liberation of the Buchenwald Concentration camp, and became influenced by King during the bus boycott.
A teacher in inner-city Philadelphia, Bass brought his students to hear King speak when he came to Philadelphia, and, exactly 50 years ago today, was among the quarter million people who traveled to Washington to attend the march.
Bass, who is now 88 years old, still travels and speaks to young people about his experiences.
During his addresses, he asks students the question, “Is the price too high?” to speak up for justice and truth.
I asked them the same question as I sought to connect King´s life and legacy to their own.
I asked them what they were willing to do.
We adults believe in them and are there for them, and they each had to decide for themselves what choices they would make, I said.
At this point I stopped and asked for questions.
One young woman asked for details about the role that music played in the movement, and I played about two minutes from a Sweet Honey in the Rock song that honored activist Ella Baker, who ceaselessly supported young people and never gave up in her efforts to make the world a better place.
Several students asked what would happen if King hadn´t lived, if the gains would not have occurred.
I said that we could not know because he did live, but that the results in the 1960s were the product of people having worked for change two decades earlier.
One young man asked me what I had done besides talk about Dr. King.
I spoke about running with then-President Donald Kennedy at Stanford, debating apartheid and then writing about for the school newspaper, about working as an educator to improve people´s circumstances, having written about race and poverty issues for The Chicago Reporter for five years and seeking to dig up important information for Spanish-speaking communities in my capacity as a database and investigative editor at Hoy.
I also said we seek to raise our son with values consistent to those of Dr. King, but that one can always do more.
We wrapped up the questions and the students filed out and onto a break.
Angelica showed us around the campus before ushering us to the front of the school.
Reasonable people can disagree about where we are now in the United States and the world compared with 50 years ago, about whether King would be pleased or disturbed by the current state of affairs.
But few could argue that the man and the hundreds of thousands of loyal foot soldiers who stood there and listened to his soaring oratory made a dent in the universe.
In so doing, they showed themselves, their communities and their nation that it is indeed possible to stand up, to be counted and to insist that lofty rhetoric be matched with concrete actions.
We have not gotten to the Promised Land King described, and we stand on the shoulders of those who gave their energy, their commitment and even their lives to help us move from where we were.
Now, it is our turn.