NCCU reflects on the lessons MLK left behind
“Do you think when Martin Luther King Jr. was in fifth grade, his teacher knew that she had Martin Luther King Jr. in her class?”
Marc Lamont Hill pointed to a group of fifth-grade boys from Pearsontown Elementary School on Thursday, telling the audience at N.C. Central University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Convocation that there’s no way to know who’s going to be the next MLK, the next Malcolm X, the next Barack Obama.
Hundreds of people filled the NCCU auditorium to hear Hill, an author, TV host and hip-hop generation intellectual, speak of King’s lessons, days before the national holiday dedicated to the civil rights leader.
King understood the value of listening to young people, who lead the movements and revolutions, Hill said. After all, King was only 39 years old when he died. He was leading bus boycotts in his 20s.
“That’s part of what makes young people so amazing, that they have a level of fearlessness, a level of courage, a level of vision, a level of insight that propels them into the struggle despite the odds,” Hill said.
The country is more than a century beyond the Emancipation Proclamation, he said. But the U.S. also is just a few decades beyond barking dogs and the blast of fire hoses and segregated lunch counters.
“We still wrestle with un-freedom,” he said. “At a moment where so many of us are enjoying access to college and access to good jobs and access to fancy degrees, so many of us are still trying to eat every day. Some of y’all know them. Some of y’all live with them. Some of y’all are them.”
He said as two in five children in the U.S. live in poverty, dropout rates soar to up to 75 percent in some cities, when there are no books in some classrooms and there are more first-class jails and second-class schools, people need to learn to listen.
“The model of King suggests that we grow as a country not just when we talk, but when we listen,” Hill said.
He said during King’s last birthday in Montgomery, Ala., MLK went downstairs, had a small breakfast with his family, put on jeans and a windbreaker jacket and headed to Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where he had served as pastor for six years.
He and members of his congregation enjoyed a small cake, but then MLK listened to sanitation workers. The group figured out ways to fight for safer work environments and better wages.
“If all of our issues and agendas come together, we have a united front, so we’re not just locked at the arm singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ but we’re also locked into circumstance,” Hill said.
He added that the U.S. should always remember the civil rights struggles and pain that occurred alongside of the victories.
King was unpopular when he died, Hill said. He wasn’t invited to educational institutions to speak. He wasn’t listed in the “Most Admired Americans” section of magazines. He even wasn’t allowed to be a board of trustee at his old college, Morehouse, because he was considered a bad influence on students for going to jail too often.
Hill said when his uncles fought in World War II, they gave their lives on the frontlines but rode in the back of the train, behind Nazi prisoners of war. His father went on a class trip to Washington, D.C., once and wasn’t allowed to take a photo in front of the Washington Monument, but dogs could get in pictures.
“They don’t want you to remember the fact that all of your grandmothers and grandaddies went through towns just like this and their money was counterfeit. Couldn’t buy a hamburger, couldn’t use the toilet,” he said. “If you don’t understand the past, you can’t ever move forward.”
Patsy Sessoms, an administrative support associate with NCCU facilities services, said King has always been known as a civil rights activist, a minster, leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner.
But she also recognized King’s education, from him entering Morehouse College at 15 years old to studying simultaneously at Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pa., and the University of Pennsylvania. He was Crozer’s senior class president and delivered the valedictorian address. He would go on to study systematic theology at Boston University and also studied at Harvard University.
“‘If you can’t fly, then run. If you can’t run, then walk. And if you can’t walk, then crawl, but whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward,’” Sessoms said, quoting MLK. “So as we move forward here at NCCU, remember, Eagles fly.”