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"Moving Forward in a Divided Society": King Day 2022 at Knox

Few periods in modern history have shown American divisiveness more than the civil rights era, and yet Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. accomplished great things through nonviolent direct action. Burkhardt Distinguished Chair in History Konrad Hamilton delivered that message at Knox College’s 2022 King Day Convocation.

Through nonviolent direct action, King molded public opinion into support for the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Hamilton said in his remarks, titled “Moving Forward in a Divided Society: Martin Luther King’s Plan for America.” 

This year’s King Day Convocation marked the 20th anniversary of Knox’s commemorative event honoring the civil rights leader. The event originated two decades ago with a small group of faculty members, including Hamilton; Magali Roy-Fequiere, associate professor and chair of Gender and Women's Studies and chair of Africana Studies; and Frederick Hord, professor emeritus of Africana Studies.

At the January 17, 2022, event, Hamilton read from King’s 1963 letter from the Birmingham City Jail, which said in part: “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.”

He noted that for King, nonviolence always was coupled with direct action. King’s nonviolent direct action often involved breaking laws that he believed were unjust, such as racial segregation laws, said Hamilton, who serves as chair of American Studies at Knox. 

“What is the meaning that we should take from Dr. King’s legacy on this day?” Hamilton continued. “Perhaps one meaning is that we don’t have to choose between a false binary of either social justice on one hand or a peaceful, unified society on the other. The positive peace of Martin Luther King’s beloved community gives us both.”

“If we truly want to apply the lessons of Dr. King’s activism,” he concluded, “we do the hard work of direct, honest, good-faith negotiations with those who see the world differently than we do.”

The 2022 King Day Convocation also featured:

  • Roy-Fequiere, who quoted from civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois’ essay “The Freedom to Learn”: “Of all the civil rights for which the world has struggled and fought for 5,000 years, the right to learn is undoubtedly the most fundamental.” She said that Du Bois’ statement “is of utmost relevance right now in this country.” 
  • Semenya McCord ’71, who sang “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” written by Thomas A. Dorsey. She spoke briefly about the song’s connection to King, who would call gospel singer Mahalia Jackson to ask her to perform it over the phone.
  • President C. Andrew McGadney, who stated that it’s a moral imperative to “speak truth to power,” which is exactly what King did. President McGadney briefly referred to last weekend’s hostage situation in a Texas synagogue, noting that “Dr. King stood against hate, stood against bigotry, and stood for racial, religious, and social justice for all.” He also paid tribute to the influence of King’s mother, Alberta Christine Williams King. 
  • Michael Schneider, provost and dean of the College, who spoke about King’s 1964 Nobel Peace Prize speech, in which King referred to “the ambiguities of history.” Schneider said that King meant the “obvious failings, contradictions, and injustices of society at this moment.” But ambiguities aren’t permanent, Schneider said, so modern-day ambiguities “should continue to shake us but also inspire us . . . to engage in the hard work of resolving [them].”
  • Hord, who recited his poem, “After a King’s Memphis: Tuxedoed Garbage Workers.” Hord noted that King urged people to always be on the alert for racism, materialism, and militarism. “I can’t think of a better trio of words to provide a framework to look at what I think we should be doing today,” Hord said.

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Printed on Thursday, March 30, 2023