Leaders call for a return to Martin Luther King Jr.’s message

MACOMB — Amid the various speakers at Monday’s 21st annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. commemorative celebration, a common theme arose: Today more than ever, the message of the late civil rights icon is relevant and needs to be heard.
“If there was ever in our time a time for Dr. King’s message, it would be now,” said Macomb Mayor Mike Inman in the first remarks made at the celebration, which was held at Mt. Calvary Church of God in Christ.
“Love, tolerance, love and tolerance. And this is the way we must and shall live.”
Western Illinois University President Jack Thomas, in his remarks, said people must continue to embrace the values of peace, love and equality that King preached and brought to the forefront of the civil rights movement.
“It our responsibility to find ways right here in Macomb, Illinois, to make positive difference in the lives of others,” Thomas said. “Remember, we can strengthen our call for equality if we are unified and love one another as our creator loves us.”
Touching on the violence impacting many regions of the United States, Thomas encouraged citizens to respond to a higher calling.
“As we examine our current state, we must stop the police brutality and senseless killings of African Americans,” Thomas said. “We must stop the senseless killings of police officers. We must stop the backbiting and pointing fingers at one another and talking negatively about one another. We must stop the black on black crimes and killings of one another. As citizens we must cast out bigotry. Dismiss hatred.  Bind discrimination and put handcuffs on racism. Yes, we can succeed, because we press on to a higher calling. Each individual can make a difference, because one plus God is a majority. Stop pointing the finger and stop looking for someone else to be the change agent. You be the change agent that you want to see in the world today.”
Monday’s special guest speaker was Dr. Alphonso Simpson Jr., who wears three hats in the Macomb community: Professor of African American studies at Western Illinois University, elder and worship leader at Macomb’s Shepherd’s Gate Church, and assistant manager of the Rialto Cinemas.
Simpson told the crowd assembled in the chapel that his goal was to “impart something very timely and very much needed today for many of us.”
“I want to encourage you and embolden you to maximize your potential, even on the footstool of ‘no,’” he said.
Toddlers from across all cultures and timelines often learn by constantly being told what they cannot do, Simpson explained.
But for others, he continued in reference to King’s words while imprisoned in a Birmingham, Ala., jail, “‘No,’ just like ‘wait,’ is a word that for some of us goes as strictly as it comes, but for the majority of us this is a word that resonates within our heads and hearts and sometimes shakes us to the core.”
“In many ways, ‘no’ can have a paralyzing effect on its targeted subject,” Simpson continued. “‘No’ has limited the potential of mankind of centuries.”
In today’s challenging times, Simpson encouraged, people should revert back to ways of childhood — without the temper tantrums and childish outbursts.
“We have been taught to accept fear, we have been taught to accept lack, sorry and restriction as part of everyday life,” Simpson explained. “We are afraid to make demands of life because we believe we can’t have what we want. If only we could think like a child again, there’s a good chance we could find the freedom we gave up to be adults. Today, embrace your inner child again and learn how to stand up on the inside, even on the footstool of ‘no.’”
Simpson also said today’s critical times call for a re-reading of King’s 1967 speech, “Where Do We Go From Here?”
The speech, Simpson noted, was King’s last as leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and viewed by many as his most radical speech.
“He not only defends the integrity, the dignity and ultimate work of black people,” Simpson said of King’s address to the SCLC, “but also questions the very structure and very functioning of U.S. society and calls for a radical critique and transformation of its capitalist, racist and militaristic character.”
King himself, Simpson continued, said the first step when answering the question “Where do we go from here?” is to reaffirm one’s identity, dignity and worth.
The challenges to affirmation of identity, dignity and worth continue today, Simpson said, and exist here in Macomb.
Western Illinois University’s Department of African American Studies was established in 1970, Simpson said. Last year, the university eliminated the program as a major and folded it into, along with women’s studies and religious studies, a new College of Liberal Arts and Sciences as a minor program.
The purpose of the Department of African American Studies, Simpson said, was to “provide the academic world with a new lens to discover the beauty of all human beings, and to acknowledge and celebrate, not simply tolerate, the gifts that all people have to offer, regardless of cultural world views and resulting differences.”
In the face of today’s challenges, Simpson said, it’s important to remember King’s “bold spirit of love.”
It’s in the valleys of the most challenging times, not on the highs of the mountaintops, where people most learn to grow, Simpson continued.
Simpson finished his remarks by encouraging people to follow King’s example.
“I want you to find the good,” Simpson concluded. “Find the good. It’s all around you. It’s all around you. And when you find it, share it. Share it with all who are willing to listen. I know that there is enough good to cover us all.”
Reach Lainie Steelman via email at lsteelman@McDonoughVoice.com, or follow her on Twitter@LainieSteelman.