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As struggle for equal rights continues, non-violent protest is key

Barry McNamara
Lecia Brooks, outreach director of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., delivers the keynote address at Monmouth College's annual MLK Convocation.
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“Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country and a finer world to live in.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

MONMOUTH, Ill. – On a Martin Luther King Jr. Day when his surviving daughter, Bernice King, said that the nation desperately needs to hear the of voice of the slain Civil Rights icon, students at Monmouth College did just that on Monday afternoon by listening to a keynote speaker who directs the Civil Rights Memorial Center in Montgomery, Ala.

“It’s an honor and a privilege to speak on King Day,” said Southern Poverty Law Center Outreach Director Lecia Brooks, who opened her presentation with the King quotation above. “One of the things I really like is the opportunity to go through all his quotes. This man was brilliant.”

Brooks said that much was accomplished during King’s lifetime, which was ended 50 years ago this April by an assassin’s bullet, but she also reminded the crowd at Dahl Chapel and Auditorium that there is still much to be done in the “struggle for equal rights.” As an example, she cited a 2016 Southern Poverty Law Center report that listed 917 active hate groups in the United States, including 32 in Illinois.

“We expect the number will increase for 2017,” she said.

Brooks said one of the biggest reminders of how far the nation has to go in the struggle for equal rights was the riot last August in Charlottesville, Va., which she called “the largest public demonstration by a hate group, probably since the 1950s.”

“There were no masks, no hoods,” she said. “You have to remember that it happened right here (in the United States). It was an awful, awful, awful act of racial intimidation.”

Although the violence of the Charlottesville riots dominated the news cycle for several weeks, Brooks said that “less-talked-about acts are happening every day,” especially on some U.S. college campuses.

“Colleges are ground zero for recruiting new members (to hate groups),” she said. “It’s a terrible, terrible mistake if we allow this type of behavior to become normalized.”

Brooks said that one of the best ways to combat hate groups is to emulate how King led the Civil Rights struggle more than a half-century ago – through non-violent protest.

“We have to maintain the moral high ground,” she said referring to a King quotation that included the line, “We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence.”

Brooks pointed out that King did not always embrace non-violent protest. In the 1940s, when King was 13, he was riding the bus home with his teacher after winning his first oratory competition. He was ordered to give up his seat to make room for a white person. Brooks said that King refused at first, but he was eventually forced to give in.

“It made him angry,” she said. “The indignity of being treated differently because of who you were.”

Brooks said it wasn’t until King came under the guidance of social movement leader Bayard Rustin that he learned about and then embraced non-violent protest.

“People behave hatefully, but we can move beyond it,” Brooks said. “The only way to win is through non-violent, peaceful protest. ... We can’t be satisfied yet,” she said, until, to quote King, “justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Monday’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day convocation also featured music, which included a performance by the College vocal group Colorful Voices of Praise.

“This is a day of celebration for all Americans,” Monmouth College President Dr. Clarence Wyatt said in his welcoming remarks. “Dr. King’s life and work reminded us – and reminds us still – of the great promise of America, a place founded on the idea that we are all created equal. His life and work challenged us – and challenges us still – to redouble our efforts when we fall short – both as individuals and as a nation – of that promise.”

Added Wyatt: “Dr. King knew that our common contribution to human progress is to be a place where we are to be judged – and to judge others – not by the color of our skin, or by our faith, or by the place of our family’s origin, or by any set of attributes, but rather by the content of our character.”