From left: Kevin Kraus, vice president for academic affairs and dean of the college; Sheila Radford-Hill, executive director of the Luther College Diversity Center; Lauren Kientz Anderson, visiting assistant professor in Africana Studies and History; Prof. Henry Richardson of Temple University; Julie Fischer, coordinator of the Northeast Iowa Peace and Justice Center; and Robert Vrtis, of the Visual and Performing Arts Department. (Photo by Julie Berg-Raymond)
Readings honor MLK Jr.
By Julie Berg-Raymond
Luther College students, faculty and staff, along with members of the larger Decorah community, participated in several public readings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" Monday, Jan. 20, in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
"Reading Dr. King's beautiful statement of courage and light, together as a community, is a fitting tribute to our national heritage of movements for justice and peace," said Lauren Kientz Anderson, Luther visiting assistant professor of Africana Studies and History.
The letter also previewed Professor Henry Richardson's Martin Luther King, Jr. Day lecture Monday night: "From the Letter from a Birmingham Jail to the Riverside Church."
Robert Vrtis, who teaches visual and performing arts at Luther, adapted the script from King's speech upon the suggestion of Luther's Diversity Center Executive Director Sheila Radford-Hill,
"Rather than attempting to imitate Martin Luther King's cadence, we wanted to put the words on many peoples' lips - as if they came back to life by our revisiting them," Vrtis said.
Vrtis sees the project as a way to avoid complacency, he said.
"Because this is history, we think it's behind us," he added. "But freedom is an ongoing struggle."
"Like Martin Luther King, Jr., we must challenge today's injustices whether domestic or international," Radford-Hill said. "Together, Decorah is raising its voices and bearing witness to the suffering of those who are oppressed. We remember the civil rights movement for teaching us how to act on behalf of freedom."
"The official U.S. beatification of Martin Luther King has come at the heavy price of silence about his radical espousal of economic justice and anti colonialism." -- from The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (2012), by Peter Dreier
Great American though he was, Martin Luther King, Jr. left a legacy that reaches far beyond this country's borders.
In his Martin Luther King, Jr. Day lecture at Luther College Monday night, Henry Richardson, a scholar of international law at Temple University, argued for an understanding of King's legacy that transcends what he called the "Americana-centric" tendency to consider it solely in terms of the American Civil Rights movement.
"We must give more weight to his global commitments and thinking," Richardson said.
Richardson's lecture, entitled "From Birmingham's Jail to beyond the Riverside Church: Martin Luther King's Global Authority," considered three of King's best-known speeches -- "Letter From a Birmingham Jail" (1963), the Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech (1964) and "Beyond Vietnam," at New York City's Riverside Church (1967) -- in order to demonstrate the global reach of his ministry.
While maintaining King's views evolved over time, Richardson said signs of his radical emphases on economic justice and international human rights were evident early on.
"In March, 1957, on the heels of the Montgomery bus boycott, King and (his wife) Coretta were invited to the celebration ceremony of Ghana's independence," Richardson said - where he would meet Kwame Nkrumah, overseer of the nation's independence from British colonization and its first president.
Also in attendance was then-Vice President Richard Nixon, in addition to prominent civil rights leaders like A. Philip Randolph.
"Young King's presence signified his involvement in the civil rights movement," Richardson said. "The civil rights leaders there signified a tangible pan-Africanist bond."
Understanding the connections between the Ghanaian fight for independence and the civil rights movement in the United States, King saw the necessity for "solidarity with international peoples in struggle," Richardson said, adding that he -- like W.E.B. DuBois, before him -- would help shape a Black international tradition."
The global scope of King's vision also has roots in the influence of Ghandian (Mahatma) non-violence on the American civil rights movement -- a generation before King himself would take up the same global struggle for freedom, Richardson said.
"Martin Luther King moved to integrate the international human rights narrative into the American civil rights narrative," he said, in an effort to break free of "official energies" that had, for 300 years, "sought to ensure that the struggle would be defined according to the strictures of racially discriminate American law."
Arguing that King's "entire public ministry should be approached in terms of his early international commitment," Richardson traced the development of that commitment through an examination of three of his best-known speeches.
From "Letter From a Birmingham Jail," wherein King applied a "prophetic Christianity" to "the moral necessities of the present and future" and reminded his audience of America's own earlier fights against British oppression, to his referencing of "the international freedom movement" in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, King's words and actions became increasingly defined by a commitment to solidarity with people suffering under oppression throughout the world.
In 1967, following several interviews and other public speeches in which King spoke against the war in Vietnam and the policies that created the war, King delivered "Beyond Vietnam" at New York City's Riverside Church.
The speech further internationalized the civil rights movement, Richardson said. It demonstrated King's effort to consider as interchangeable civil rights law and international human rights law; and to conjoin narratives about international peace, international rights and American civil rights.
In that speech, King addressed what he saw as the connections between the war in Vietnam and the struggle for civil rights in the United States:
"A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poo r-- both black and white -- through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched the program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube."
Finally, King delivers his scathing indictment of the U.S. government and its role in the oppression of its own citizens as well as of peoples throughout the world:
"I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today -- my own government."
"King's birthday is no longer confined to a celebration of civil rights successes," Richardson said, "but also of his criticism of the militarism of the U.S. government."
"His legacy needs to be understood through the lens of his global ministry," Richardson concluded. "I think King put America in the world."