The bell W. Rayford Johnson carried was small, but its significance was mighty. Three strong flicks of Johnson’s wrist filled the Minnesota History Center Auditorium with the echo of the 100-year-old heirloom passed down from his great-grandmother. On what would have been the 85th birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., its sound meant one thing, he said: Let Freedom Ring.
Hundreds of marchers braved the cold Monday to march in honor of King’s birthday for the 28th year, as part of Gov. Mark Dayton’s Council on the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday. Once inside, speakers that included Dayton, Minnesota’s U.S. senators and keynote speaker U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison echoed the same theme: Progress has been made, but the dream has yet to be fully realized.
“The world that they lived in is not the same as the world that we live in. And we are richly blessed. They gave everything to change it. Everything,” said Ellison, a Minneapolis Democrat who told stories of his mother, eight months pregnant in the 1960s and refused permission to use a gas station restroom. Years earlier, she had been hospitalized for an illness. Her light skin color led nurses to believe she was white, Ellison said. When they discovered she wasn’t, she was moved from a clean, private room to a crowded, dirty one.
‘How far we’ve come’
“We have to think about how far we’ve come,” Ellison said, “If we continue on a trajectory of inclusion and the politics of generosity, I am confident, God willing, that we will attain that loving society that Martin Luther King talked about.”
But in the wake of widening achievement and income gaps between minority and white Americans, much work remains, Dayton said.
“We can choose a path of reaching out to those who are disadvantaged, who don’t have hope and opportunity, or we can turn away in silence,” Dayton said. “We can reach out to stand up against injustice, and the violence and hatred that still infects our society, or we can turn away with indifference. We can reach out and lend a helping hand to those who can become the future leaders of our state and nation, or we can ignore them [at] our peril. We can either carry on the great legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. or we can go our own separate ways.”
Sen. Al Franken told the crowd he was 12 years old the first time he felt moved by a political issue. While watching the news with his family, a Southern sheriff was turning a fire hose on peaceful demonstrators, siccing dogs on them and beating them with clubs. His father pointed to the TV and said, “No Jew can be for that.”
“Fast forward, and we have an African-American president.” Franken said. “But then you think: ‘Yeah, but we have not seen the promised land yet. When you think of King’s dream and you think of where we are and you see the disparities in this country and in this community, in education, in employment, in opportunity, in wealth, in pretty much every aspect of life, you know that we haven’t gotten to the promised land yet.”