“Your freedom and my freedom are bound together” was the theme for events held in Cincinnati on Monday, January 17, the national holiday that recognized the contributions that Civil Rights icon the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made to improve racial justice in America.
More than 50 years after his death, the lessons and leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. continue to serve as a North Star for equity. The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center celebrated the legacy of Dr. King during its virtual King Legacy Celebration. The program brought together a group of experts and activists to revisit what Dr. King called the three evils of society: poverty, racism and militarism.
In 1963, a hopeful Martin Luther King Jr. declared to 250,000 activists and onlookers that he had a dream. Four years later, Dr. King struck a much more somber tone.
“We were the dreamers of a dream that dark yesterdays of man’s inhumanity to man would soon be transformed into bright tomorrows of justice…. Our hopes have been blasted and our dreams have been shattered,” Dr. King said at the National Conference on New Politics in 1967. He warned of “a triple prong sickness that has been lurking within our body politic from its very beginning. That is the sickness of racism, excessive materialism and militarism.”
Keynote speaker Lance Wheeler addressed Dr. King’s warning about the three evils and reflect on his legacy in the 21st century. Wheeler, published historian and director of exhibits at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, also examined how we can bridge the generational gap of history for hope, freedom and equity in a new era for civil and human rights.
The ongoing threats of poverty, racism and militarism was also addressed by local and national experts who took measure of the current situation and offer paths forward. Mona Jenkins, director of development and operations the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition, addressed the issue of homelessness; Jaipal Singh from the Cincinnati Regional Coalition Against Hate offered perspective on ethnic conflict; and Dr. Celia Williamson, executive director of the University of Toledo’s Human Trafficking and Social Justice Institute, took take on the challenge of human trafficking, which often flourishes in regions riddled by military conflict. Linda Early Chastang, interim president and CEO of the John and Lillian Miles Lewis Foundation, addressed a fourth evil identified by the Freedom Center as a critical threat to equity in America: voting rights.
The Freedom Center’s event was followed by individuals and groups assembled there for the annual MLK Coalition’s Commemorative March to Music Hall, where a virtual MLK Day program was shared over Zoom, again due to an increase in the new cases of the coronavirus variant omicron.
The MLK Coalition said modern day justice organizers are fighting for health care access, police reform, and voter suppression – all reiterating themes in Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” The links between the past and present prompted this year’s theme, “Your freedom and my freedom are bound together.”
Longtime activist and business owner Iris Roley was this year’s keynote. She’s the co-founder of the Black United Front and has spent decades working on police reform and policy in Cincinnati. She’s also working with young people of the Leaders of the Free World, an organization that wants to see updates to that deals with police reform.
Performers included Saba Jazz’s Camille “Saba” Smith and University of Cincinnati students who are part of the African American Cultural and Resource Center. That includes solo performers Shakyra Welch, Abby Adeji, and spoken word artist Gerald Crosby.