A nationally-renowned activist told students the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. should be a remembered as a revolutionary who had courage to speak truth to power.
Dr. Peniel Joseph, a history professor at Tufts University, award-winning author and national commentator who has appeared on C-Span, NPR and PBS, was the speaker at Wittenberg University’s MLK, Jr. convocation at Weaver Chapel on Monday.
Joseph’s speech reminded students that even in light of President Barack Obama’s second term in office, the movement for equality for all races is still going strong.
Joseph calls the years 1954 through 1965 the heroic period of the civil rights movement, when Dr. King led demonstrations across the country. He gave a snapshot of events in that era, such as the murder of Emmett Till, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and the signing of the Voting Rights and Civil Rights acts.
In King’s letter from the Birmingham jail in 1963, the leader responded to critics who called his actions “unwise and untimely” by saying the time to act is now. Joseph said King’s point was the civil rights movement was about transforming the scope of American democracy.
“The founding fathers would’ve never predicted Barack Obama,” Joseph said.
Joseph said people see King as a prince of peace, rather than a revolutionary who spent three years before his death speaking against the government’s policies concerning the Vietnam War and poverty in America.
“He wasn’t very popular during this period,” Joseph said. “It takes courage to speak truth to power.”
Joseph called King a revolutionary who “utilized non-violence to coerce and transform politics and practices even when leaders and politicians and citizens said, ‘You shouldn’t be doing this, you should take it slow.’”
Obama and King shouldn’t be confused in history, Joseph said, because one is a politician and the other was a civil rights activist and community organizer.
If Dr. King were alive today, he would “speak truth to power and criticize the President for drone attacks” and poverty, Joseph said, even when it’s not popular to do so.
Joseph said King wasn’t a very popular American by the time he died, but said America later revitalized his story and kept his revolutionary side “at an arm’s length distance.”
“We want the neatly wrapped up story with a beginning, middle and end, so we say that Barack Obama’s election is the end of our civil rights era,” Joseph said.
Joseph said that’s not the case, and the movement is still going strong with victories and setbacks along the way.
“The hope is in the continual struggle,” Joseph said.