COLUMBIA — MU faculty, students and community members met Monday afternoon to discuss President Barack Obama's role in achieving Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream and what it might mean for African-Americans in the 21st century.
The panel discussion in MU's Reynolds Journalism Institute, which was sponsored by the Chancellor's Diversity Initiative and the MU Martin Luther King Jr. Committee, was followed by a gala in Memorial Union that included a re-enactment of King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech.
Each of the four panelists spoke of the legacy of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and what effects persist today. The moderator, MU Deputy Chancellor Michael Middleton, said that the panel’s purpose was to dig more deeply into the notion that King’s dream had only “in part” been realized with Obama's election.
“We’re now in the position of asking a progressive president to finish that hope,” said panelist Michael Ugarte, a Spanish professor at MU.
Panelist KC Morrison, an MU political science professor who classified his hometown in Mississippi as “small, rigidly segregated,” said he heard King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in his final year of high school. From experiencing the civil rights movement in his hometown, he said he “began to fashion a thinking of how to save my own life and that of my community.”
Morrison said King was not dreaming when he gave that now-famous speech; instead, King was recognizing a tough reality. To Morrison, Obama represents a “step forward to the notion of regularity for African-Americans.”
Morrison voiced a goal to which others on the panel alluded: that African-Americans might one day be perceived as something “other than a black face walking out the door.” As far as that goal is concerned in light of Obama’s election, “there has been some progress,” Morrison said.
Panelist Lyn Williams, of the civic organization Change Today, said she did not feel racism as an African-American child educated in the “best white community.” When the time came for Williams to choose a college, she admitted to favoring historically black schools.
She recalled that her father told her that he and other civil rights activists “fought hard to give (her) the right to be able to choose (a school).” Williams was one of the first 200 African-American students to attend the University of Kentucky.
Williams said that it was not until Obama’s election that she realized there was still more to King’s dream. With three African-American sons, Williams said she has “watched people walk across the street” when her children, now men, have walked towards them.
“My oldest (child) … graduated high school at 16, one of the smartest people you’ll ever meet. … He’ll be something someday, but I don’t want to him to be judged by the color of his skin,” Williams said.
Panelist Kelley Robinson, a youth vote organizer for the mid-Missouri Obama for America campaign, said that following Obama's election, “our job isn’t done — we’re part of unifying this nation.”
Following the discussion, members of the audience shared their thoughts on both King and Obama.
Robin Remington, MU professor emeritus of political science, said that the American public “must help this president live up to what he wants to be.”
MU student Jamal Andress said, “I feel like (this discussion) needs to keep happening … to make people take notice of these issues.”
The second part of the event, a semi-formal gala, included a re-enactment of King's "I Have a Dream" speech by Clyde Ruffin, chair of MU's theater department. It received a standing ovation, as did Almeta Crayton, former First Ward councilwoman, upon receiving a diversity award from MU’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Committee and the Martin Luther King Jr. State Celebration Commission.
Echoing King’s intentions of equality and mirroring the opinion that injustice remains, Crayton challenged the audience: “If Dr. King walked in that door, would he be proud how we treat each other?”
The gala ended with a raffle benefiting the Boys and Girls Club of Columbia.