The annual celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day at the Kansas City Art Institute (KCAI) encompassed several mediums and aspects of Dr. King’s life and work. “We celebrate with the community so that we all can remember, acknowledge, and reread here about the birth life, and dream of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” said Dr. Jaqueline Chanda, the new president of KCAI. Incidentally, she is also the first African-American president of KCAI.
“We have many people who have helped with this event,” said Andrea Khan, registrar and director of academic resources. One of the main aids was the student organization for students of color on campus, Black Artist Culture and Community (BACC).
“If we were going to work on this day, we were going to make this day an occasion,” Khan said. “As an institution, we needed to recognize this day.”
The first African-American graduate of KCAI was Leonard Pryor, who applied on the GI Bill right after WWII, and was accepted. His wife was not accepted when she applied to UMKC, because UMKC still wasn’t accepting African-American students. Pryor later became a dean at KCAI.
The morning of the celebration started with a film called “Eyes on the Prize” that discussed King and his work in the Civil Rights Movement, as well as his struggle to eliminate the extreme poverty during his life suffered by members of every race. It documented the bravery it took for King to speak out against the Vietnam War, which cost him the support of many important allies in his other goals, such as President Lyndon B. Johnson. As King said in his first major speech on Vietnam, “A time comes when silence is betrayal. That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.”
After the film was a guest singer, Timothy Robinson, who sang echoing and powerful acappella renditions of gospel melodies such as “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.”
The keynote speaker, Charles Coulter, the former op-ed editor at The Kansas City Star, has taught African-American History at UMKC and KCAI. He is a published author and historian of Kansas City with the book, “Take Up the Black Man’s Burden: Kansas City’s African American Communities, 1865-1939.”
“What we tend not to remember is just how difficult and just how terrifying that year between Rosa Parks being arrested and of course overturning segregation on the buses was for the people who participated in the boycott,” Coulter said. “People being beaten, people being arrested, people losing their jobs.”
The terror that was experienced by those who dared to speak out against racism in the country, was immense. King had phone calls and death threats against him, his wife and his children.
Coulter talked about King’s recognition that if he showed fear, then his followers would be afraid and would stop the cause, and so King was the man who showed no fear. King had a strong faith in God, and in his country.
Coulter spoke at length about the rich and poor divide. There were several comparisons between King’s Poor People’s Campaign and the Occupy Wall Street movement. To end the program, the speakers and the audience sang Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday.” After the program, there was a reception with punch and birthday cake.
As Stevie Wonder sang, “For in peace our hearts will sing, thanks to Martin Luther King.”