ST PETER — So often, and especially on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, King is honored as an orator and remembered for his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Cathy Cohen — who delivered the annual MLK Memorial Lecture at Gustavus Adolphus College Monday morning — said she prefers to speak on King’s final years before his death in 1968, when he focused on being an activist for unpopular causes.
In 1967-68, King was devoted to fighting poverty and encouraged people to summon the courage to speak on behalf of those who have less. That King, she said, was “rarely the leader glorified on this day,” yet he was arguably doing his most important work.
Cohen, a leading scholar on race and politics from Chicago, drew numerous parallels between King’s vision during that period and the work that still needs to happen today, even under the Barack Obama administration, she said. She read a quote from King that was especially poignant to her, asking all of us to understand the humanity of the people we call our enemies.
As an example of the relevance of this passage, she recalled the murder of Derrion Albert on the south side of Chicago in 2009. Albert, a 16-year-old honor student at Christian Fenger Academy, was walking home when he was jumped, beaten and stomped to death by two rival factions from different neighborhoods. Albert did not know his attackers and was in no way connected to the fight.
“Derrion Albert did everything we asked of him,” Cohen said, referring to his plans to attend college and being an upstanding youth in the community. And, she said, Albert and his family certainly deserved the outpouring of sympathy they received.
However, justice should not simply end with prison terms for his attackers, she said. Focusing simply on the innocent victim of “black rage” does nothing to highlight the complicated experience of being young and black in society today, she said.
Cohen said she in no way excuses violent crimes such as Albert’s murder due to the culture and oppression of growing up poor and black in America. She is suggesting, just as King did more than 50 years ago, that larger solutions come from understanding these “enemies.” And that change can only occur with “the coordinated struggle of everyday people.”
King did not act alone, Cohen said. Great individuals tend to be preserved in history, including King and Rosa Parks, when in reality, numerous people whose names will never be known played an even more important role in causing change by acting together.
Parks was not the first black person to refuse to move to the back of the bus, Cohen said. There had been previous arrests, and a movement had formed with people who had discussions with each arrest about whether that was the one that should trigger a collective action.
Parks’ arrest was deemed the right moment, and the Montgomery Improvement Association coordinated the 13-month bus boycott in 1955-56. King, president of the association, emerged from the event as a prominent civil rights leader, she said.
While history credits King, there were thousands of others that made the boycott happen — people who planned the movement, those who mobilized it, and every person who walked or carpooled for a year to avoid the bus.
Change happens because of people willing to “leverage limited resources for a greater good,” she said.
“It was the work of everyday people,” she said. “This is the model of activism that I believe Dr. King would want us to follow.”
So, on inauguration day for Obama, Cohen urged the audience at Christ Chapel to hold their president and other elected officials accountable for people outside the political system in lieu of focusing so much on the middle class. And she asked all of us to speak and to act on behalf of the disenfranchised.
“In the tradition of Dr. King, we must stop waiting for a new messiah,” she said.