One of the featured speakers at a celebration on Monday morning commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech at what was the Booker T. Washington High School gymnasium made clear he did not want to give a kumbaya speech.
The Rev. Nehemiah Smith Jr. was one of two speakers on the program to speak about progress and unmet challenges.
King on Nov. 27, 1962, gave a speech that included what is the documented forerunner of his “I Have a Dream” speech the next year at the Lincoln Memorial after the March on Washington and at a time when racial tension and integration were at the forefront of American discourse.
Smith on Monday morning said that 60 years later, the question lingers: “How far have we come in race relations in that time period? What progress has been made?”
“If this is to be decided by the extent to which we have eliminated racial injustice and inequality, then the easy answer is we haven’t progressed that far at all,” Smith said.
Smith said while he thanked the City of Rocky Mount, which organized the celebration, for the opportunity at the speaker’s podium, as for what he was about to say next, he felt neither any trepidation nor any apprehension nor any need for an apology.
“I and many others contend that our slothful progression toward justice and equality has a lot to do with the naivete that many Americans — including those who are well meaning and especially those who are in power — have allowed to languish and thus have brought into and promoted the utopic concepts of colorblindness and the melting pot society,” he said.
Smith said he believes what has to be understood is no one can allow King to be placed only in a dream state.
“Before we even talk about being woke, Dr. King was woke,” Smith said. “And yet we have allowed external forces to force us to see him as only, ‘I Have a Dream.’”
King was an advocate for fair housing and for fair resources and was against war, Smith said.
“And whenever we allow ourselves to see him only as, ‘I Have a Dream,’ then we bastardize the very speech itself,” Smith said.
King was talking about working, Smith said.
And Smith said, “He was talking about us getting out and putting our hand to the plow and getting the work done.”
At the same time, he said, “There are those who want us to remain in a dream state because as long as you are dreaming, you’re not working. As long as you are dreaming, you’re almost in a state of sleep.
“You want to know why people are still not getting out and voting? Because we have allowed ourselves to become and be in a dream state,” he said.
During his remarks, he also said racism is not about color.
Racism is an economic term dealing with denying people access by codification, he said.
“We need to be more engaged. We need to do some, literally, some intellectual enterprise into understanding what ‘I Have a Dream’ was all about,” he said. “And until we do that, until we take that intellectual enterprise, until we do that intellectual work, until we literally know who Dr. King was and what he was about, we will never understand his purpose and his mission.”
He made clear King only was asking for equal access for Blacks and for Blacks to have the same resources.
Smith also said he is certain someone will say: “How is it that you can give such a scathing analysis?”
Smith made clear his response is, “Can you imagine if he (King) were here what analysis he would give? He would be so very disappointed in all of us.”
Smith said King spoke about the tranquilizing drug of gradualism, which he said still exists today.
“You have that pusher out there who is saying, ‘No, wait. No, it’s not time’,” Smith said. “But if it’s not time to do it now, when will it ever be time to get it done?”
Smith made clear overall on Monday morning that there is so far to go before evening thinking about dealing with “I Have a Dream” and King.
Smith said, “We need to keep our children in school. We need to promote love amongst our citizens. We must stop killing each other.”
And Smith said, “We’ve got to come to a better place, people.”
“We’ve got to come to a better place because if not, then the dream becomes a nightmare,” he said.
“We’ve got to vote. In every election, even the runoff election is going on right now, we’ve got to vote, because if not, then the dream becomes a nightmare,” he said.
“We’ve got to have fair housing because if not, the dream becomes a nightmare,” he said.
“We’ve got to promote these young people running for office, becoming active in our community, because if not, the dream becomes a nightmare,” he said.
“What we have to do is, as a humane people, we have to work together for the best of everybody,” he said. “And only then, only then, will we see the dream become reality.
City Councilman Reuben Blackwell also was on the program to speak about progress and unmet challenges.
Blackwell said as there is a shift to the next generation and as the mantle is being taken off of one shoulder and put on the shoulders of others, all he and others can say to that next generation is do not disrespect the sacrifice that created the anointing in which they are able to walk and do greater.
Blackwell said the truth of the matter is greater is needed.
Blackwell also said King recognized he had to sacrifice family, friends, comfort and being accepted to create an opportunity for a momentum to take place that would shift and change the dynamics of a country mired in the history of violence, mired in the history of inequities and mired in the acceptance that some people are better than other people.
“And today, we still live, don’t we? Tell the truth. We still live,” Blackwell said.
At the same time, Blackwell said, “We wake up with a feeling that it’s OK for some folks to have to do certain things and other folk to have opportunities that everybody can’t have. So the work is still yet to be done.”
The Rev. Milton Batts, who gave the benediction, said that he wanted to note that 2023 is going to mark the 35th year of the local Martin Luther King Jr. Commission honoring King’s birthday, with the theme to be, “The time is right.”
Batts also that said the oratorical competition is set for 9 a.m. on Jan. 7 at the Imperial Centre for the Arts & Sciences and that the annual King unity breakfast is set for 8 a.m. on Jan. 16 at the Rocky Mount Event Center, with retiring U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-1st District, to be the keynote speaker.