Nearly five decades have passed since Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.
He would have been 82 years old on Monday.
But the title of his last book “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” continues to be relevant for some Americans in 2017.
“Never has that statement become more appropriate than today,” said Jim Mendenhall, co-chair of the Delaware County MLK Celebration Committee.
There was a pause in his opening remarks at the 24th annual Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast at Ohio Wesleyan University Monday morning.
“In four days, this country will go through a significant change,” he said, in reference to the inauguration of the 45th president, Republican Donald Trump.
This year, the event had one of its largest turnouts with about 400 people in attendance, said Susanna Long, an event coordinator.
More than 30 organizations including churches, government agencies and the counties top two political parties sponsored the breakfast. Jen Ruhe, communications director for Delaware City Schools, read the city’s resolution to acknowledge the day. She also recognized five student recipients of the MLK Scholarship: Lydia Drake, Christopher Martinez, Arianna Phrakornkham, Lydia Sanders and Riley Sayers.
Rev. Dr. Valerie Bridgeman, an associate professor of the local Methodist Theological School in Ohio, was the featured speaker.
“I have this joke that I get to be professionally black” on MLK day, she said.
But Bridgeman provided a first-hand account of her experiences with racism. She remembered playing in the woods with the white children next door but were unable to overcome the “seismic distance of race” especially when the mother put a stop to such gatherings in order to keep with society’s conventions at the time.
“Being black in the United States can be hard,” she said.
Bridgeman turned her attention on King’s legacy, particularly on what made him a radical figure such as his opposition to the Vietnam War and his views that the country was “morally bankrupt” because of capitalism.
Bridgeman was nine years old when King was assassinated and for the first time in living memory saw her mother cry when it was reported. She remembered at midnight that day when white men, or so she assumes, were driving down the country dirt road shouting “awful words.”
“I wonder if you can imagine that kind of fear,” she said.
Bridgeman turned her attention to the outcome of the 2016 presidential election and Trump’s victory.
“I didn’t vote for him,” she said.
“Not because he was a Republican,” Bridgeman said, but because she remembered King’s march in Alabama and the misinformation about the Black Lives Matter movement. She remembered the friends and family who are members of the LGBTQ community, are autistic or who practiced the Islamic religion — all of which were negatively mentioned in Trump’s rhetoric during the campaign.
Bridgeman said the title of her speech was “how do we live together” but considered it a failure because it lacked answers. She had a few suggestions for Delaware County such as breaking down stereotypes and truly coming together.
“We cannot survive the NPR/Rush Limbaugh divide” or the “Fox News/MSNBC divide,” she said.
“I hope we can have Dr. Kings’ radical world. Let’s go.”
Clarence Wilson of Springfield attended the event as a guest of Second Baptist Church in Delaware. He said Bridgeman was clear and precise in her message.
Wilson said he fears the incoming administration because of the uncertainty surrounding Trump and because he comes from a wealthy background rather than a common one.
“Only time will tell,” he said.
Gazette reporter Brandon Klein can be reached by email or on Twitter at @brandoneklein.
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