Chestertown, MD, January 23, 2003 — For the first time in recent memory, the audience attending an event in Washington College's Norman James Theatre were asked to file in through doors labeled “White Only” and “Colored Only.” Immediately labeled as soon as they walked through the door, some were allowed up front, but many more were told to sit in the back.
And it was all done in honor of a man who spent his life fighting against the practices those heading the event were trying to echo.
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebration at Washington College titled “Remember Why” gave its audience just a small taste of the inequity and discrimination the doctor and reverend died fighting to eliminate. Each person, as they came in, was asked to draw a label from a basket. Those with a “WHITE” label were told to sit up front. Those with a “COLORED” label had to sit in the back.
By the time the ceremony began, the rear of the small theater was packed. Host Jennifer Walker of the Class of 2003, explained just why the labels had been given out.
“These labels you are wearing were assigned to you not based on character or personality, but indiscriminately,” she said. “Today, as you are separated, think about those feelings that you had … From 1880 to the 1960's … because of the Jim Crow laws … many people felt as you do today.”
Those addressing the audience at the Jan. 20 ceremony spoke of their own feelings about King and read pieces relevant to the day.
Mark Hoesly, associate dean, asked, “Why do we still gather annually? … People don't gather in this number for other Americans.”
“People still haven't learned the lessons,” he said. “Until we learn these lessons, I think we will still need to dedicate ourselves to the ideals that Dr. King championed.”
The most poignant and timely words spoken were those of King himself. Professor Kevin Brien of the college's Department of Philosophy, in speaking about his reaction to the civil rights leader's assassination, read excerpts from King's speeches.
“On April 4, 1968, an assassin's bullet stole the life of a man with a great dream, a man who routinely went where even the angels feared to tread … I was in the library of Boston University when he was killed … It was the same institution where King received his doctorate,” Brien said.
It wasn't until later, walking along the Charles River, that he heard the news.
“I felt a grief welling up in me … Snippets of King's speeches came to my mind,” he said.
Brien read from two of King's most well known speeches, and from one of his least studied, yet most relevant works.
In his acceptance address for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, King said to the audience in Oslo, “I refuse to accept that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him. I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.”
During his address to those marching on Washington DC on Aug. 28, 1963, King said from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal' … I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
King delivered a speech to a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned at Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his tragic death, titled “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence.”
“I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values,” he told his audience. “We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
“A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth,” he continued. “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death. America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values … We must, with positive action, seek to remove those conditions of poverty, insecurity and injustice which are the fertile soil in which the seed of communism grows and develops.”
Brien added to that final quote with his own words, dovetailing King's feelings on Vietnam with the message of the worldwide peace rallies held the two days before.
“I would add that this fertile soil of poverty, insecurity and injustice is also the soil in which the seed of terrorism grows,” he said. “If we want peace … we must work for social justice now … We must work for social justice in the relations between the sexes … between races … between nations … in all human relations.”
Audience members were encouraged, before they left the theater, to write on their labels – “WHITE” and “COLORED” – words to express how they would label themselves. Before leaving, the audience put those transformed labels on a corkboard panel in the back.
Many said “Love” or “Peace” or “Unity.” One read “God's Children, One or Indivisible.” And one read “Youth of Tomorrow, The Choice is Ours.”