Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called on the crowd of 2,400 people at the Armory in Minneapolis to ask themselves what they were doing to realize the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision of equality and consider how they could "heal this obviously divided nation, as he sought to do."
Holder said he could never have predicted how the trail blazed by the civil rights leader would impact his own decades later as the first black attorney general under the country's first black president, Barack Obama. But as keynote speaker at the 30th annual MLK Holiday Breakfast, he also urged the crowd not to gather once a year to make King a vision from the past, but rather to make him a guide to a better future and protect the advances he made.
"We must not look back toward a past that was comforting to too few and unjust to too many — that is not how you make America great," said Holder, taking a veiled dig at President Donald Trump. "...We must not give in to irrational fear and manufactured division, but instead embrace needed trust and national unity."
Similar to past years, the event attracted a who's who list of influential Minnesotans such as Gov. Tim Walz, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and Minnesota U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar. The audience was entertained throughout the morning by dance and song breaks by local gospel singer Jovonta Patton and hip-hop storytelling dance company Shapeshift. Several times the crowd rose to their feet as they joined together to sing the black national anthem "Lift Every Voice and Sing" and then "Happy Birthday" (the Stevie Wonder version) to King.
The breakfast audience also stood for Reatha Clark King, chemist and philanthropist, who was honored with the Local Lifetime Legend award.
In St. Paul, more than 2,000 people filled the seats at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts for the state of Minnesota's annual celebration of King. The theme of this year's event was "For Our Children," which was top of mind for Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, the first Native American lawmaker elected to statewide office in Minnesota, who was also celebrating the 7th birthday of her daughter, Siobhan.
"We hear every day the ringing narrative of who is in, who is out, who is deserving and who is not, who feels safe and who does not," she said.
Walz said there's been progress: There are more black legislators serving in the Legislature now than at any other point in state history. But Minnesota is still plagued by disparities between black and white residents in almost every measure. The state ranks near the bottom in racial disparities in its education system.
"It is no longer acceptable to have high graduation rates for white students and be at the bottom for black students. It's no longer acceptable to try and write it off how we handle all these things," Walz said. "Think about housing, think about good jobs, and think about equity and think about the historical trauma that those children come in there [with], and understand that their future and our future depends on them achieving the same way their white classmates achieve."
Children filled the seats at the Ordway alongside their parents, standing up to dance during performances from hip-hop artist Nur-D and poet Tish Jones. Black students from around Minnesota also submitted questions to keynote speaker Yara Shahidi, a Minneapolis-raised actress and activist who starred in ABC's comedy series "Black-ish" and its spinoff "Grown-ish."
"One of the tattoos I have says 63 for 1963 being a pivotal year in the civil rights movement," she said. "It speaks to that idea of how many people came before us and put their lives on the line because of something they believed in, not because they were guaranteed a future of equity in their life span."
Back in Minneapolis, Holder quoted from King's last speech before his 1968 assassination, saying only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. Today, Holder said, we can see those stars — in the people who keep up the fight for the safety and civil rights of all, in those who have called for solutions to gun violence, in the citizens who resist attempts to exploit and divide the American people.
And while he's proud of the progress from the civil rights movement, Holder said, "The truth is, like Dr. King, I am dissatisfied." He shared a long list of laments, including that 100 Americans are shot daily, that he's had to talk with his teenage son about how to safely interact with law enforcement, that women, racial minorities, and other marginalized groups still yearn for equal opportunity, and that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that King helped pass "remains under siege now."
"It is time for each of us to ask, as Dr. King so famously did … 'Where do we go from here?' What more can we do as individuals and as a society to help realize Dr. King's vision of racial and social equality? Each of us must ask ourselves, 'What am I doing?' " Holder said.