At the end of a weeklong celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, USF students Amanda Torsey and Gabrielle Newton met the son of the man who they said made their friendship possible.
Martin Luther King III, the oldest son of civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., spoke to a ballroom full of University staff, students and community members in the Marshall Student Center Thursday.
Torsey, a senior majoring in interdisciplinary social sciences and leadership studies who self-identifies as white, and Newton, a senior majoring in elementary education who self-identifies as black, credited the parent of the speaker for their ability to be friends, despite racial differences that would have kept them apart during their parents’ generation. Yet King said there is still much work to be done before America can be viewed as a land of equality.
“I come with mixed emotions because I often go back and forth within my head about whether we should truly celebrate or whether we should observe my father’s birthday,” King said. “One day in the future we will be able to celebrate, but that time is not now. We’ve had moments over the last 25 years to celebrate. We have made great strides, but the struggle is not complete. We still evaluate people. We’re still a good, and potentially great nation, but we haven’t gotten there yet.”
King, a spitting image of the bronze bust located in the MLK Plaza, said that even with the advances made during the civil rights movement, inequalities are still prevalent in today’s society. Necessities like health care, housing, education and employment should be available to all citizens, he said, yet are still unattainable by many.
USF professor of Africana Studies H. Roy Kaplan, who saw King’s father speak in Iowa in 1962, said discrimination due to religion, sexual orientation and gender identity and expression is now more prevalent than discrimination against race. Even so, racial discrimination still exists, he said.
“There’s only one race: Homo sapiens,” Kaplan said. “Lighter skin people pretty much dominate the world. (Society has) come up with justifications for this. Sometimes (norms) are unspoken, but they’re part of the general culture. People with light skin open up doors. People with dark skin find more obstacles. That is still a fact.”
It’s a fact that Glenn Miller, a senior majoring in English, is all too familiar with.
“Freshman year, here at USF, me and my roommate experienced someone writing on our door ‘N—-.’ It really hit home that racism is still alive, even if we don’t see it all the time,” Miller said. “When we come together at a university, and there are people from all over the world in one place, different feelings come together. We are able to see the racism of the world even here.”
King’s message hung heavy in the air as he expressed his views on the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, common ways that hate is taught to American children and statistics that show that youths of color are disproportionately targeted for crimes committed equally across race lines – each point enunciated by murmurs of agreement from audience members.
“You reap what you sow,” King said. “You can’t mistreat people and expect it to not come back and get you. Enough ought to be enough. We need to find a way to live with each other. My dad started from a plane of love.”
At the age of 10, King lost his father to the bullet of James Earl Ray and learned how difficult forgiveness can be, he said. He pointed to this as an example from which society needs to learn.
“I was taught to dislike the evil act, not the individual,” he said. “Humanity hasn’t learned that yet. Our whole society has come to embrace hate … We need to embrace love if we are to move our society forwards. When we get there, we can celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday.”
King concluded the evening with a plea for his audience to take heed of his message.
“2011 is the start of a new decade,” he said. “Time is not missing a beat. We have to get in step with time. Every last one of us has a contribution to make. America must wake up and become a headlight, not a taillight. It takes leadership. All of us are on the battlefield.”
Torsey and Newton said they were both inspired by King’s lecture. When he finished speaking, the two rushed to the front of the room and stood on either side of King to take a picture – a picture that was not characterized by color, but by friendship.