Dr. Mae Jemison recalled Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech Monday to people gathered in St. Paul to celebrate the civil rights leader who envisioned the sons of slaves and slave owners sitting together at the table of brotherhood.
People think of it as a smiley, kindly speech, she said, but “this was revolutionary. This was not about dreaming. This was about becoming awake, about being woke.”
Jemison, the first black woman to travel in space, reflected on King’s legacy before a crowd of several thousand people at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event that also highlighted women of color in science, technology, engineering and math.
The daughters of Katherine Coleman Johnson accepted a Governor’s Equity and Justice Legacy Award honoring their mother’s groundbreaking work as a NASA mathematician in the 1960s that was the subject of the movie “Hidden Figures.” Reatha Clark King received the Governor’s Civil Rights Legend Award commemorating her work as a chemist who served as an executive at General Mills Corp. and the General Mills Foundation.
People commemorated the 33rd annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day in events across the nation, including at a breakfast in downtown Minneapolis where “CNN Tonight” host Don Lemon detailed his bumpy rise from a child of modest means in the Deep South to worldwide recognition as a TV journalist.
An emotional Lemon wiped away tears during the half-hour address to some of the biggest names in the Twin Cities political, corporate and philanthropic world; he spoke of being born in 1966 amid the tumult of the civil rights era and how King’s message of nonviolence triumphed over Malcolm X’s strategy of seeking equality “by any means necessary.”
Lemon reads and listens to King’s speeches — even amid a work schedule that can go 24 hours straight and draws relentless criticism.
To live a greater life, Lemon said you have to be willing to listen to others and change your mind.
“You have to open your mind. You have to be quiet. You have to listen,” he said.
In St. Paul, several speakers emphasized that King was not simply a man of inspiring words.
“Folks mistake nonviolence for passivity,” said Jemison, a black engineer, physician and astronaut who was on the Space Shuttle Endeavour in 1992. “It is not. All of [King’s] work was a statement of action, of moving things forward.”
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison described how King in his lifetime was not the lauded figure he is today: His house was bombed, he was arrested many times and called a “notorious liar” by the head of the FBI, and he died as one of the most hated people in the U.S.
“He wasn’t just a nice man who said whites and blacks should be friends,” said Ellison. He added that people have an opportunity even now to fight injustices such as high college debt and the difficulty of affording a middle-class life.
On stage, Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan emphasized their commitment to racial equity in a state where people of color lag white residents in education, income and other areas.
“I understand that the privilege I’ve been given as a white man and the privilege of sitting in the office of governor had better be used to not just talk about the problem but to solve the problem,” said Walz, noting that education would be a priority in his new administration.
Jemison voiced concern that women and racial minorities make up two-thirds of the population but are underrepresented in the sciences. She said that influences which topics are researched, which data sets get analyzed.
In introducing Jemison, sixth-grader Peyton Vincent said that while there’s no doubt that science creates a better future, our greatest resource is each other.
“That’s why Martin always challenged us to respect our differences even if we disagree, for if we do not respect one another regardless of race, gender, color, orientation — all the science in the world cannot save humanity,” she said.
Peyton, who is black, is a member of a First Lego League robotics team at Breck School in Golden Valley. She hopes to be a veterinarian.
“Martin Luther King had a dream,” Peyton concluded. “When I fall asleep, I, too, have a dream … where little girls like me can explore strange new worlds and seek out new life and civilizations … to boldly go where no man has gone before, to expand our universe and to unite all people.”