MLK speaker urges attendees to seek community in times of chaos
At the 14th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Dinner, featured speaker Marc Lamont Hill asked the audience to consider where to go beyond this “hour of chaos.”
The event was held in the Show Me Center on Jan. 23 and the theme of this year’s dinner was “Building Community in an Hour of Chaos.”
Hill is an award-winning journalist and one of the leading intellectual voices in the country. He is also an author and activist, and has been named “one of America’s 100 most influential Black leaders” by Ebony Magazine.
At the beginning of his speech, Hill said when he thinks about King’s legacy, he thinks about April 3, 1968, when King delivered his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. Hill referenced the speech many times, and broke it down for the audience while still quoting King.
Hill dove into his speech by quoting a section of King’s where he talked about all these historic movements and said if the “Almighty” were to give him the choice to live in any age, he would be happy if he could have “just a few years in the second half of the 20th century.”
Hill explained King meant he wanted to be inserted into American history not when it was comfortable, easy or celebrated, but in the darkest moments. Hill noted this models something special for us today.
“[King] said, ‘Only when it is darkest can you see the stars. Only at our lowest points are we able to have the most ambitious imaginations,’” Hill said.
Hill said King wrote about those moments of darkness and in them he said you are given a choice between chaos and community. Hill said in 2019 we are wrestling with a similar challenge, and asked the audience to consider their choices.
“So where do we go from here, chaos or community?” Hill asked.
Hill joked we are already in chaos, but suggested applying some of the principles King stood for and traditions he lived by to help find community, especially in times like these.
He said King dared us to have a “radical imagination.” Hill explained having a radical imagination means “we are not reducible or limited to the circumstances that we are bound-up in in our immediate experience.”
Hill encouraged the audience to not only have a radical imagination, but to carry out radical actions as well.
“The biggest problem in the world today, is there are too many people who don’t do anything. Radical action requires that you do something,” Hill said. “King didn’t just give speeches. King organized, King acted, King did. King was about local action, mass action, national action, international action. Let’s honor King through radical action.”
Junior math education major and president of the Omicron Pi chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Mikayla Richardson said she enjoyed having a male speaker at Southeast who could talk about black culture and history, as well as relate to ways African American students have experienced racial injustice.
“To go to a predominantly white institution where we don’t have many blacks, especially males to speak of the culture of African Americans and education, living in poverty, black people being a minority and not having access to certain resources,” Richardson said. “And to hear someone speak, to hear someone understand the struggle was amazing.”
Dean of Students and assistant to the president for equity and diversity Sonia Rucker gave opening remarks. She read an excerpt from King’s famous letter from Birmingham and noted how “King’s thoughts on unity, a more diverse and inclusive America and the power of community were far beyond what some people could even imagine during his time.”
The two student hosts for the evening were student regent Luke LeGrand, who gave a short welcome speech, and president of the Black Student Union Ke-La Harris. Another student who earned a special spot in the program was sophomore musical theater major Brianna Justine, who led the national anthem.
Before Southeast president Carlos Vargas took the stage, Tashin Khalid from the Cape Girardeau Islamic Center led the audience in prayer.
In his speech, Vargas reflected on King’s days in a Birmingham jail, and the progress that has been made in regards to social acceptance since King’s time. He also paid tribute to activists from the Southeast community, such as Roberta Slayton and Helen Carter. Slayton was the first African American to enroll at Southeast, followed by Carter, who became the first African American to graduate from Southeast.
This year, University Marketing created a video featuring students and alumni who are exemplifying the theme by making a difference in the Southeast community, which was played at the dinner.
The video led into a soulful performance by special guest Brian Owens, accompanied by instructor of musical theatre Joshua Harvey.
Following the speech, Hill received a gift bag from the university, as well as his banner that will hang alongside the influential men and women who have spoken at the dinner in past years.
Southeast alumni and 85th District of the Missouri House of Representatives Kevin Windham also presented Hill with a gift to thank him for speaking at the event.
At the end of his speech, Hill urged the audience to remember King as more than a man who marched to Washington and had a dream about blacks and whites sitting at the same table. Hill said people often neglect to read the second part of the speech, where King said just having a seat at the table is not enough and the government must be held accountable for the promises it has broken throughout history.
“King don’t want black and white people sitting at the table together when one half of the table is unfree, unequal, does not have access to quality schools, subject to state violence. No, King wants a world where everybody’s at the table but everybody has equality,” Hill said.