Photo Credit: Janet Rogers, Division of Strategic Marketing and Communications
Complete the Work Begun by Romney
In the much-heralded “I Have a Dream” speech, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. challenged us to judge others by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.
As the keynote speaker for the 2014 University of Missouri-Kansas City MLK Lecture Program, Melissa Harris-Perry asked her audience to go beyond the well-remembered speech and learn the real legacy of King and the civil rights movement.
“Celebrating Martin Luther King is when we begin the six weeks of sepia-toned misremembrance,” said Harris-Perry, referring to the period spanning the King holiday and Black History Month. “The conversations are complicated, but essential.”
Harris-Perry stressed the importance of knowing that King emerged from, and was a representative of, a community of activists. She highlighted the work of others who were guiding forces behind the movement, including Ella Baker, James Bevel and Bayard Rustin.
King encouraged us to embrace the causes for which he would eventually give his life – freedom, equality, justice for black and white Americans.
“The movement turned King into a tool to adjudicate inequality in America – inequality in employment, in education and in wealth,” said Harris-Perry. King was assassinated while supporting striking sanitation workers in Memphis.
And, Harris-Perry urged that we “make a career of humanity” – a charge from Dr. King.
“During the next several years, we will witness 50-year celebrations of change – the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968,” said Harris-Perry. “Race is weird in the way it shifts our perception of the way things happened.”
The laws were passed due to the treatment of Blacks on TV and in the news – both nationally and internationally. They were passed in large part because of King’s assassination.
But the movement had national implications, and the laws had to be enforced. And, they were enforced by then secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, George Romney, father of Mitt Romney.
In his efforts to implement the Fair Housing Act, Romney was undermined by President Richard Nixon and the act was essentially nullified, along with Romney’s political aspirations.
In her efforts to move forward King’s challenge to fight for social justice, Harris-Perry issued her final request of the evening.
“If I asked you to follow in King’s footsteps, that would be too hard,” said Harris-Perry. “So, I will ask you to be at least as courageous as George Romney and fight for change as he did.”