He practiced nonviolence. He advocated for workers’ rights. He was assassinated as a civil rights leader, a martyr for his dream.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s day isn’t just about celebration, but about an active pursuit of his elusive dream, said Dr. Andre Johnson, a civil rights expert who spoke Monday at Viterbo University for the annual MLK Community Celebration.
“To stand on the side of the dream is to stand with the poor and the marginalized and to see the world from their vantage point,” Johnson. “To stand on the side of the dream is to stand for nonviolence in all spaces and places.”
Johnson is an author and researcher specializing in the civil rights movement. He serves as the Dr. James L. Netters Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Religion and African American Studies at Memphis Theological Seminary.
Johnson recounted King’s journey through the civil rights movement - from the positive messages of his earlier speeches to the more pessimistic speeches he gave in later years, including his speech condemning the Vietnam War.
King’s dedication to peace was rooted in his Christian beliefs, and while he navigated the public political scene, he was more than a politician or a preacher, Johnson said.
“He was a prophet, because the prophet is always getting us to move a little bit harder,” Johnson said. “The prophet is always getting us to do a little bit better.”
Part of the community celebration’s goal is to remind area residents that achieving King’s dream requires continued efforts, said Dempsey Miller, who helped organize the event.
“Constant work and constant practice,” Miller said, “and not let that dream die.”
The event also included performances by the Viterbo Choir and the 9th Street Singers, a small choral ensemble.
Actors portraying King and Malcolm X performed a scene from the play “The Meeting,” about a fictional encounter between the two civil rights leaders.
Central High School student Omar Jandal accepted an award for his essay about King’s dream speech.
Retired professor Dr. James Parker accepted the 2013 MLK Leadership award. In 1969, Parker created and taught the first African-American history class at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
“Fifty years ago, King said the time is now,” Parker said. “And let me repeat that to you. The time is still now.”