At Detroit event, MLK legacy is ‘a dream of action’
April 4, 1968, is a day written into history.
It was then that an assassin fatally shot Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, where he had been supporting striking sanitation workers.
The preacher and civil rights icon has become synonymous with social justice. So to mark the 50th anniversary of his slaying Wednesday, Metro Detroit interfaith officials and activists hosted an event placing King's life, views and impact at center stage.
And to them, the ultimate goal was not only to recall the historic figure’s work in pushing change but extending those efforts in 2018.
“The dream is not only a dream but a dream of action,” said Donnell White, executive director of the Detroit Branch NAACP.
Balancing memorializing King while calling for justice anchored the evening gathering at Detroit’s Greater New Mt. Moriah Missionary Baptist Church.
Presented by the church and the InterFaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit as well as coinciding with other observances across the country, the program drew Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh followers to highlight King’s role in the national push toward civil rights.
Many reminded the diverse crowd seated in the pews that a half-century after his slaying, King’s quotes, stances and mission remain a clarion call for activists.
“The message he preached is universal,” said Imam Sayed Hassan Qazwini, who leads the Islamic Institute of America in Dearborn Heights. “And that will make him eternal.”
Others recognized that though King, whose final speech was broadcast during the ceremony, often is remembered for working to improve race relations, his final years revolved around human rights.
“He came to see himself as an advocate for the poor and oppressed, wherever they were,” said the Rev. Fran Hayes, pastor at Littlefield Presbyterian Church in Dearborn. “... He stayed steadfast in his commitment to confront unjust power structures.”
Though scores still revere the icon, many of the issues King fought to address — including poverty, discrimination and economic inequality — linger today, said the Rev. Kenneth Flowers, pastor at Greater New Mount Moriah.
The deaths of African-American men in police encounters, including Stephon Clark in California last month, underscores that point, he said.
“If Dr. King were here tonight, he would still be marching in the streets, against the police violence around this nation,” he told the guests from the pulpit. “If Dr. King were here tonight, he would be talking about the man that sits in the White House because of how he’s tearing up the nation. If Dr. King were here tonight, he would let America and the world know now is the time for us to stand tall … recognizing that we must work together, pray together, struggle together, stand up for freedom and justice together, knowing one day we shall be free.”
In that spirit, the audience solemnly sat as Flowers rang a bell 39 times — once for each year of King’s life — then linked arms to sing “We Shall Overcome.”
The scene encouraged Dorian Tyus of Detroit, who brought his nearly 2-year-old son, Jasaan.
“It’s extremely important because it’s basically a snapshot of what the civil rights movement was all about,” he said. “In this current climate, it’s important to speak truth to injustice, racism and anti-Semitism and show unity.”
The Rev. Sharon Buttry, a pastor and social worker who frequently quotes King in her interfaith work, also relished congregating with like-minded supporters. “My heart is broken for how far we have to go in recognizing King’s dream,” she said. “We don’t get peace without justice.”
Honoring King’s legacy attracted Gloria Cooper, who is originally from Alabama and still recalls pained surprise learning about the death of a man so well regarded. “It’s part of our history,” she said. “Everybody should know about it. He was a good man.”