Associate Professor of History Konrad Hamilton urged the remembrance and understanding of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s purpose and legacy in his keynote speech during Monday’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Convocation.
“Our goal has always been to make the holiday more than just a remembrance of the great deeds that happened in the past, but to try to understand the ways Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy continues to be of use to Americans and people around the world today,” Hamilton said.
He expressed pride in the undeniable change and progress America has seen in the last 60 years, especially in the election and reelection of the nation’s first African-American president and in the cultural diversity on displayed many college campuses that would have “stunned and delighted Dr. King,” but argued that there are still racial barriers that have yet to be broken down.
“Young black citizens know that they can be shot to death by law enforcement officers who mistake dark-skinned auto accident victims for criminals. … Sadly, despite undeniable progress, Reverend King’s beloved community has yet to arrive,” he said.
According to Hamilton, the fundamental meaning of Dr. King’s activism is still relevant in today’s society, and embodies citizens’ needs for a fair, humane and just government and to revitalize American democracy at the core of the federal government.
“King believed that if enough Americans spoke loudly enough, then the government of the United States of America would eventually be forced to do the right thing,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton argued that there will always be serious obstacles for those who seek to accomplish social change.
What’s most surprising to him and what would have surprised Dr. King, though, is how little we expect from our government, Hamilton said. There are plenty of negative characterizations of the federal government that we assume, and there are several various definitions of what makes a good government.
“There are those who seem to define the role of good government as cutting taxes and slashing budgets, rather than improving the civic life of the community,” Hamilton said. “Is it any wonder, then, why so many young Americans have given up their birthright to make their claim on their government?”
Hamilton cited a recent experience working with Knox’s study abroad program in Argentina, where he witnessed a celebration of government, despite prior tyranny and corruption within the government.
“For the Argentines whom we got to know, tyranny is not caused by the government, but those who stole the government and used it for negative purposes,” Hamilton said. “Argentinian celebrations of government in the last year emphasized how a strong government in the right hands protects and strengthens freedom and democracy.”
It was difficult for Hamilton, he said, to explain the October government shutdown to Argentines.
The reason we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a national holiday, Hamilton said, is because his example teaches us a fundamental lesson about American democracy.
“On his deepest level, Dr. King’s legacy continues to illuminate the opportunities offered to citizens of a free society to participate in the democratic government of their country and in doing so, affect the things that matter most in their lives.”
Perhaps, Hamilton said, the most important thing to remember on Martin Luther King Day is to remember the importance of celebrating democracy and working toward Martin Luther King’s vision for democracy.
“There’s no reason why we can’t see King’s America again. We just have to decide that we deserve it.”
The event was well attended and also included welcome speeches from Chair of Gender and Women’s Studies Magali Roy-Féquiré, President Teresa Amott and Dean of the College Laura Behling, and poems from senior Morgan Blakley and junior Cristian Gorostieta.