Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech echoed throughout Harbach Theatre, signaling the eighth annual campus commemoration of King Day. A quick glance at the crowd—students, faculty, the Galesburg community, prospective students and their parents—illuminated the impact Dr. King has made as people diverse in almost every way imaginable gathered at Knox College to celebrate his life and legacy.
Magali Roy-Fequiere, associate professor and chair of the gender and women’s studies department, gave the opening. The Knox College Choir, directed by Laura Lane, professor of music, sang “Woke Up This Mornin,’” a popular freedom song during the civil rights movement.
President Roger Taylor welcomed the audience and asked prospective students and their parents to rise so the audience can recognize them. Taylor spoke about how the “principles followed by Knox’s founders, restated in advance at Knox by Abraham Lincoln, now have contributed to a presidential election that surely advances the quest to realize Dr. King’s dream.”
Knox’s legacy in the struggle to prove that “all men are created equal” grow from founder and leader of the western Illinois Underground Railroad, Reverend George Washington Gale, to Abraham Lincoln who denounced slavery as a moral wrong against his debate with Stephen Douglas at Old Main, to then-Senator Barack Obama, who gave the commencement address to the class of 2005 and is now the first black president of the United States.
One month after giving the commencement address, Obama said, “A few weeks ago I stood at the commencement at Knox College. I stood in view where Lincoln and Douglas held one of their famous debates for the U.S. senate, waiting for the soon-to-be graduates to ensemble, and I thought that even as Lincoln lost the Senate race, his arguments that day would result centuries later in my occupying the seat that he coveted.”
President Roger continued, “When a majority of Americans—from all ages and backgrounds—decided to judge Senator Obama, not by the color of his skin, but the content of his character, I suspect that I echo the thoughts…” he paused as his voice cracked, “…of many of my generation when I say that I’m glad that I lived to see that day come.”
One of the highlights of convocation was the speech given by Konrad Hamilton, associated professor of history and chair of american studies, titled “The Audacity of Citizenship: The Meaning of King in the Obama Era.”
Hamilton said, “In his most private moments, Dr. King sometimes confided to his closest friends that he believed that America might not achieve equal voting rights and racial desegregation until early in the 21st century. We have considered the possibility that in 2008 Americans would transcend divisions of race, class, gender, region, and even political party, to put a black family in the White House.”
Commenting on the day before Obama’s historic inauguration and reflecting on the meaning of celebrating Dr. King’s birthday, he said, “It is clear then that this King day is not unlike any other…To the extent that an Obama presidency represents a fundamental improvement in American race relations, and I believe that it does…Why does Martin Luther King still matter? If we’re truly seeing a declining significance of race, as least in American politics, then I believe that this makes King more relevant, not less.”
Hamilton continued, “The reason above all other reasons that we give Martin Luther King a national holiday is because he showed us how to be better patriots. King invited the idea of activist citizenship.”
Hamilton echoed Obama’s sentiment from his acceptance speech on Nov 4 when he “called for a new spirit of patriotism, where each of us resolved to pitch in and work harder and look after, not only after ourselves, but each other.”
Fred Hord, professor and chair of black studies, read the poem “Conversation Dreams of a King and President,” an imagined conversation between Dr. King and President Barack Obama. Afterwards, Semenya McCord ’71 sang a jazz song, “God Bless the Child,” by Billie Holiday, whose songs Obama enjoys. Convocation closed with the Knox College Choir singing “We Shall Overcome” as the audience sang along.