King’s words echo 50 years later at GP high school

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

For more than an hour Wednesday, the words echoing from the Grosse Pointe South High School gymnasium painted a stark portrait.

One by one, a diverse group of students, activists and religious leaders stood at the podium and recited remarks about life across the United States: economic disparities, civic unrest, racial discrimination, voting rights, sharp divisions between many groups.

Except for a few references, their message sounded like a snapshot of America in 2018. Yet each phrase had been delivered exactly 50 years earlier, at the same spot, by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Recalling the civil rights icon’s words and work anchored “Moving from the Other America to the Beloved Community,” an event to mark his historic appearance on March 14, 1968.

Presented by the Grosse Pointe Public School System and a community partner program of a Detroit Historical Society project, the gathering aimed to link the turbulent past to similar issues in the present.

“After five decades, the other America continues to exist for many across our country and even our community,” Robert Bury, executive director/CEO of the Detroit Historical Society, told more than 500 guests.

The high school has long chronicled King’s visit to deliver “The Other America,” one of his final addresses before he was assassinated, after an invitation from the Grosse Pointe Human Relations Council.

The interview subjects still recall the tension and significance of that winter night.

Valerie Kindle, Harper Woods mayor pro-tem, was shaken by hecklers.

“I never experienced racism, and to experience that hatred, that feeling that they hated me because of my color — as a teenager, I couldn’t get over that,” she said in her interview.

Others remember how King remained unbowed throughout his presentation, which also touched on stereotypes of African-Americans and the Vietnam War.

“Dr. King was incredibly poised,” said Ahmed Ismail, a former student photographer who now serves on the district’s school board. "I don’t think I've seen another speaker with his power. Just a totally captivating speaker."

His speech, even recited by others Wednesday, drew applause and murmurs from the audience as images of King and youths flashes across the curtain behind them.

The event impressed Trinity Diehlee, a junior at the school who attended with her classmates.  "History is still very present and relevant," she said.

Honoring that history in the 21st century dovetails with King's speech, which not only addressed conditions in the '60s but underscored his vision of a "beloved community," said Brenda Tindal, the Detroit Historical Society education director, who has studied the King and the American civil-rights movement. "It is a community in which racism and all forms of discrimination and bigotry and prejudice are replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood, brotherhood and humanity."

Decades later, the message remains a call to action, said Gary Niehaus, the Grosse Pointe Public School System superintendent.

“We’ve got to learn from him ... what roles we play as Americans today and what is the courage we have to be able to take on those things in our life that are still hanging over our country,” he said. “Do we have the courage to take on his dream and do something with it?”

That notion was not lost on Elaine Williams, a Detroiter who joined the crowd while wearing a Take on Hate T-shirt.

“It’s extremely important now in this climate,” she said. “For it to go on now is amazing. This shows people will come together. It’s all of our history.”

Sharing that bond was Germaine Strobel, who braved spitting demonstrators to attend the 1968 speech with her husband and met King at Detroit's Central United Methodist Church. When the preacher was slain weeks later, the couple risked arrest to join a candlelight procession after a curfew.

She, too, hoped King's legacy would inspire greater change.  "We’ve progressed in some ways, but there’s a lot of work that needs to be done," the St. Clair Shores resident said​. "Racism is institutionalized and it’s got to be overcome."