Shoulders touched as 150 young adults listened intently to Dr. Robert Barnett’s Martin Luther King Jr. presentation.
“... Not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” Barnett quoted.
Fifty years have passed since MLK Jr. delivered his famous “I have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. Monday morning, students from all walks, races and cultures listened as a white professor relived the famous civil rights leader’s message.
The audience was taken back to 1950s America.
“This was the America where we talked about opportunity and we were finally optimistic about the future having come through the Depression,” Barnett said. “It was an America described by Hollywood television programs like ‘Leave it to Beaver’ and ‘Father Knows Best.’”
“This was white America. The reality for African-Americans was much different.”
Barnett wanted students to understand the conditions of a segregated South. Blacks and whites were separated in everything from public restrooms to movie theaters, libraries, swimming pools and restaurants.
Being black in segregated America was not a part of the-25 minute weekly look into the Cleavers’ home life.
“I wanted to create an idea of where King, and those who worked with him, came from,” Barnett said. “The conditions that spawned his efforts.”
King was on a mission.
“He hoped to force the federal government to do something by creating visual evidence of the brutality of segregation,” Barnett said. “And, then again, what it was to be a black person in the South.”
“... He was very careful to choose cities which seemed to be symbolic of issues he was concerned about in the South.”
Barnett is fascinated by King’s beliefs.
“I think it is remarkable he actually believed it was possible to find something decent in everyone,” Barnett said.
Students can take several lessons away from King’s life, Barnett said.
“First and foremost, he showed what someone can do. I think we tend to live in a world where students do not think they can accomplish much. They are a single voice,” Barnett said. “They think there is nothing they can do about anything.”
Over the course of 13 years, King became a household name.
“Here is King at age 26 and he is marginalized ’cause of his color,” Barnett said. “Still, he will have a profound effect on his country.”
“I think that alone is a pretty significant example of possibility.”
King became an inspiration for the underdogs of America. He was on the verge of galvanizing the Poor People’s Campaign, an effort to provide equality for America’s poor, when he was assassinated on April 4, 1968.
Maybe, Barnett wondered aloud, King was one of the last heroes.
“We don’t live in a world of heroes anymore. I wonder if one could make a fairly good case that Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t one of the last heroes — at least, for some people,” Barnett said.
“Maybe that is his significance.”
“We live in a world of anti-heroes. ... I think people like Martin Luther King Jr. represent something we don’t have much of anymore, and that is being heroic.”
Sometimes King is portrayed as larger than life. He achieved more than he was given. He acted upon his dreams.
Barnett said it is important to remember his humanity.
“He is absolutely flawed. Everybody knows that. We focus so much on the flaws,” Barnett said. “Maybe the story here is, a flawed individual can still make a difference.”
Students filed out of the lecture hall one by one and in twos and threes. The color of their skin giving no preference to who left first and who walked out last.
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” King said in his speech at the Lincoln Memorial.
“I have a dream.”