By Sophie Deiters
The keynote speaker for this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration event was Eddie S. Glaude Jr., an author, activist and head of the Department of African American Studies at Princeton University.
The Jan. 16 event began with speeches from the presidents of Grand Rapids Community College, Davenport University and Grand Valley State University. The three universities collaborated to put on the event at Fountain Street church and present the “Inherit the Dream Scholarship” to three high school students for their aspiring contributions to diversity, equity and inclusion.
The West Michigan District AME Zion Choir kept the crowd entertained in between speakers with heartfelt gospel performances.
The main event featured a heavy keynote speech by Glaude.
“This year’s celebration of Dr. King’s life and legacy occurs against the backdrop of a nation in crisis. Americans are divided and those divisions go well beyond ideological differences,” he said. “Great replacement theory, panic and terror around demographic shifts, assaults on voting rights, on women’s rights, antisemitism. All across the board we find ourselves still fighting a civil war, the outcome of which we have yet to decide.”
Gaude continued, speaking about King’s views on a post-desegregated South.
“He argued that even if desegregation was 100% successful, the relationships between human beings in this country would remain deeply problematic,” he said. “(Dr. King) says we do not have to look very far to see the pernicious effects of a desegregated society that is not integrated. It leads to physical proximity without spiritual affinity.”
He went on to explain how this lack of spiritual affinity metastasizes in our society saying, “We can just think about how Grand Rapids is zoned. We can think about the Sunday church hour. We can think about certain school districts.”
Gaude also spoke about how King’s legacy is remembered amongst Americans.
“We like to think of him on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, hands outstretched shouting, ‘Free at last, free at last. Thank God almighty we’re free at last.’ We like to think of him as the smiling preacher who called us to our better angels but that’s a fairytale that secures our innocence and ensures a quiet sleep,” he said. “(Quoting Dr. King), ‘We’ve got to face the fact that America is a racist country. We’ve got to face the fact that racism still occupies the throne of our nation. I don’t think we will ultimately solve the problem of racial injustice until this is recognized and until this is worked on.’”
“A nation that continues to lie to itself can never truly know who and what it is. Dr. King was right, and the evidence is clear. We are a racist country and to admit such a thing is not to condemn ourselves to the gallows. In the Christian tradition, to admit that one is a sinner sets the stage to be born again,” he said. “Let’s celebrate him tonight by fighting for a more just demand, by risking everything in this moment to fight back those forces that harden the heart and corrupt the soul.”
Attendee Wendy Marty appreciated that Gaude tailored his speech for a Grand Rapids audience.
“Of all these celebrations I’ve been to, I’ve been to many, this is the best organized, the best managed, the best scheduled and the best speaker,” Marty said. “The quotes he chose made his words much more meaningful and I appreciate the fact that he wrote a presentation for this event. This wasn’t a speech from another event.”