MLK Day: King’s Work Marches On

Over the years, commemorations of Martin Luther King Jr. Day have taken different forms at Rivers—sometimes with guest speakers and performers, sometimes with powerful statements from students and other members of the community, sometimes with service projects that honor the legacy of the slain civil rights leader.
In this fraught and challenging season, it seemed only fitting that the focus of the day would be on Dr. King himself, and that the programming would be provided by a member of the Rivers community. History faculty member Arturo Bagley addressed Wednesday’s virtual assembly, and he told the story of King’s leadership in the fight for civil rights and for justice in the broadest sense.

Bagley, nodding to the racial caste system that has prevailed in America and has kept people of color from attaining the full rights of citizenship, began with the end of the Civil War and the passage of the 15th amendment, granting all men’s right to vote. Those events, he noted, may have put a technical end to slavery but, followed as they were by Jim Crow and the era of segregation, did not ensure equal rights for African Americans. 

Jumping ahead almost 100 years to the Montgomery bus boycott, Bagley explained how this act of peaceful protest eventually led to a Supreme Court ruling that supported desegregation. King was chosen as the leader of the boycott, thrusting him into the national spotlight.

Demonstrations in Birmingham—known as “the most segregated city in America”—soon followed. Hundreds of protesters were brutally attacked by police and arrested, but the protestors, under guidance from King, hewed to the approach of non-violence. As Bagley said, quoting King, “Civilization and violence are antithetical concepts.”

It was impossible not to draw comparisons to the recent events in Washington, and Bagley forcefully highlighted the contrast between peaceful protestors and last week’s violent mob. “What we saw at the Capitol was not free speech,” he said. “It crossed the line into violence. It went beyond free speech when it included the destruction and desecration of public property.”

The right to vote, Bagley went on, is central to democracy and citizenship—yet that right has been too often abridged by those intent on suppressing the Black vote. Here, too, King was instrumental, helping to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibits racial discrimination in voting. When Black people were allowed to vote in numbers, said Bagley, they began to elect Black people to public office, citing last week’s historic election of Senator Raphael Warnock in Georgia. But Bagley also pointed out the need for King’s work to be ongoing, as states continue to hinder Black voters. As Bagley noted, President Trump’s baseless contentions about fraudulent votes focus largely on minority communities.

Finally, Bagley quoted at some length from King’s “drum major” speech, in which King emphasized the importance of kindness, service, and justice over personal ambition, recognition, or awards. In the famed sermon, King spoke of how he’d like to be remembered: Not as a Nobel laureate or the recipient of countless other honors, but as a person who gave his life to serving others. 

“That is what we should remember on Martin Luther King Day,” Bagley concluded. “Remember that what is most important in life is that we become our best selves by helping others become their best selves.”