In his weather-delayed Martin Luther King Jr. Day keynote speech in Murray, Murray State University history professor Dr. Brian Clardy pointed to “a common mistake” often made in King birthday observances.
“We freeze him in time to a single moment in August of 1963 where he delivered his famous ‘I Have A Dream’ speech, as if that is the only thing that he said or did during his storied career,” said Clardy. “To simply reduce and marginalize Dr. King to the status of a ‘dreamer’ is not only insulting to his memory, but misses the entire point of his life and mission.”
Clardy said King “was not murdered because of a ‘dream.’ He was killed because the wartime America of 1968 refused to wake up from a nightmare of its own making. The powers-that-be sought to prosecute an unjust war in Southeast Asia, pay lip service to the War on Poverty, and ignore its unfinished revolution that would make the American ideal a reality for all.
“Dr. King called them on that, and it cost him his life.”
Clardy spoke at Murrays annual MLK Community Breakfast at the Springhill Suites hotel. The event was sponsored by the university’s Office of Multicultural Initiatives, Student Leadership, and Inclusive Excellence.
Clardy, who has been on the MSU faculty for 18 years, urged his listeners not just to focus on history “on this hallowed day. Instead, we must ask ourselves the hard and difficult questions about our own collective neglect in furthering King’s vision of a ‘Beloved Community.’”
He challenged, “Have we, in our complacency and satisfaction with ‘bread and circuses’ failed to fulfill the vision? Have we taken our hands off the plow and our eyes off the prize and allowed those forces of hatred to re-emerge into our body politic?”
Clardy didn’t pull punches:
“Who would have thought that in 2024, we would be hearing discussion about book bans and the resurrection of the false and illogical ‘Lost Cause’ as purported truth? Who would have thought in their wildest nightmares that the traitorous Confederacy would be lionized and its repulsive symbols serving as the false idols of intolerance?
“Who would have thought that in 2024, some of our leaders would crib lines from Adolf Hitler and the madness of the Third Reich in order to prosecute grievances and to score points?
“Who would have thought that in 2024 — in the name of geopolitical expediency — we would be sitting on the precipice of a possible Third World War? Who would have thought in an age where we were supposed to travel freely, share information, and become an interactive global village that we would see horrifying images from Gaza, Tel Aviv, Darfur, and the Ukraine? Are we really OK with those?
“Who would have thought that in 2024, we would have to learn how to protect ourselves from active shooters because we never know when some hateful and vengeful person with a gun will decide to play God for a day and end life with impunity?
“Who would have thought that in 2024, daily bullying and harassment would become accepted behaviors? That suicide would be an option? That dangerous drugs would flood our streets and end young lives forever?
“Who would have thought that in 2024, workers would still have to picket, protest, and strike for fair wages in an ever-changing economy as many wage earners are still ... one pay check away from poverty?”
Clardy, a member of United Campus Workers of Kentucky, pointed out that “Dr. King was an avid supporter of organized labor, and his final cause was to march for the dignity of striking sanitation workers. Indeed … had he lived, he was going to lead a mass march to Washington to demonstrate the problem of poverty in this, the richest country in the history of the human race that was hell bent on war. Never, ever, lose sight of that.”
He continued his emphasis on the present:
“Who would have thought that in 2024, reproductive and voting rights would be in peril on the whims of the false prophecy of originalism?
“Who would have thought that in 2024, hateful intolerance and bigotry would lead to daily violence against those who worship, think, love, identify, and vote differently from ourselves? Since when did ‘different’ translate into ‘deficient’? Why do we have to keep reminding ourselves that antisemitism and Islamophobia are evil systems of thought? Why have we not received that memo?”
Clardy warned, “We have work to do. The struggle didn’t end on a bloody balcony in Memphis.
“When we walk out of these doors later this morning, please know that this is the world that we must confront. And each of us — and in our own way — can contribute.
“We must stay informed. We have in our hands the vital tools necessary to keep current with what is happening in our larger world and in our own neighborhoods and to engage positively in dialogue.
“We must stay registered to vote and have the responsibility to vote in large numbers in EVERY election, not just the presidential, but in the local school board elections, for county officials, and at the various levels of state government. But even voting isn’t enough; we must hold our leaders (even if we voted for them) accountable.
“We must create spaces where people can air their differences in a peaceful, calm, and welcoming environment. To commit ourselves to dialogue and the principles of non-violence, and to know with certainty that power cannot be found in the barrel of a gun or with hateful rhetoric designed to wound and dehumanize.”
He charged the crowd to “fight like hell for democracy, and not just when it suits our fancies. We must commit ourselves to democratic principles even when we lose an election. Because in staying engaged, we can fight for our cause yet another day. We create room for compromise and consensus to solve our most pressing problems.”
He warned against forgetting “the plight of the poor, oppressed, and those who are victims of violence. We must share our resources with those who do not have them and speak up for them when they cannot speak up for themselves.
“When we have to protest, and I will be willing to say that at some point we will, let us commit ourselves to non-violence and respect for life and property.
“When we have to speak truth to power, let it be in the spirit of understanding and love, not with a raised fist or words of hateful anger, but in the spirit of respect.”
He called on students to get to know their classmates. “They may speak a different language or pray to a different deity, or have a totally different world view outside your comfort zone. Make lifelong friends and shape alliances, as you will be our leaders when many of us have aged or shuffled off this mortal coil. We need you.
“We need the faith community to be the faith community outside the walls of their sacred space. Whether we are Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Daoist, Buddhist, Hindu, Wiccan, or follow indigenous deities, let us remember that one common thread runs through them all: do to others as you want others to do to you.”
He concluded, “If our society is going to pull itself back from that foreboding Nietzschean abyss over which we currently hover, it will take all of these efforts and more. In so doing, we honor the memory of Dr. King and thousands of other invisible heroes who demand no less of us.
“Let’s not let them down. Let’s not let ourselves down.”