Journalist Yamiche Alcindor urges audience to not be silent when encountering injustice during MLK Holiday Observance
Martin Luther King Jr. was clear-eyed about the perilous time he was living in amid the unrest that accompanied the fight he helped lead for civil rights as well as growing disillusionment with the war in Vietnam.
In his final speech, given the night before his assassination, on April 3, 1968, at the Charles H. Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee, King acknowledged many seminal moments in human history – the heyday of ancient Greece and Rome, the Renaissance, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address during the American Civil War, the Great Depression.
If asked by God what age he would want to live in, King said: “Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, ‘If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy.’”
King recognized how unusual that might seem.
“The world is all messed up,” he said. “The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.”
Journalist Yamiche Alcindor, the White House correspondent for the “PBS NewsHour” and moderator of “Washington Week,” found herself drawn to those words when reflecting on King’s legacy and its relevance today while she prepared to give the address at the University of Missouri–St. Louis’ annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Observance.
Asked to touch on the theme “Embracing the Dream in a Season of Uncertainty,” Alcindor drew a connection between the world King inhabited when he spoke those words and the uncertainty and turmoil Americans are facing right now as she delivered a 30-minute speech to an audience of more than 300 people streaming online during its premier on Monday morning.
“The last few years have been awful – globally, nationally, personally, full stop,” Alcindor said. “Martin Luther King once said, the ultimate measure of a man – and I would add a woman – is that where he or she stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he or she stands at times of challenge and controversy. I lean into that every day because we are truly living through times of challenge and controversy.”
Alcindor didn’t need to call attention to the global COVID-19 pandemic, though she did. It remains ever-present on everyone’s mind almost two years after it officially began and has now killed more than 800,000 Americans while infecting millions around the globe.
She also spoke about the continued reckoning taking place in the wake of last year’s riot at the U.S. Capitol.
“More than a year after the Jan. 6 attack, we are still learning so many chilling details about just how American democracy was almost brought to its knees,” Alcindor said. “The House committee investigating the insurrection is intensifying its work and going after people who not only tried to overturn an election but also white supremacists – people who of course Martin Luther King fought tooth and nail against, people who hate the very idea of what America is – a growing and diversifying collective of people.”
Alcindor noted King’s stated belief that the arc of the moral universe is long, but that it bends toward justice. But she stressed that it bends that way through the actions of individuals, who are molding it to that end.
She talked about her own career in journalism, where she has continually shined a light on issues of inequality – whether they be in economic opportunity or inequities within the criminal justice system – as well as racism and police brutality.
Alcindor urged everyone to speak up when they see injustice in the world.
“Martin Luther King said this: History will have to record that the greatest tragedy in this period of social transition was that a strident clamor of the bad people but the appalling silence of the good people,” Alcindor said. “To add to this, he also said there’s a time when silence is betrayal. Many people have been silent, continue to be silent in the name of being comfortable. The lesson of these times should be to call out wrong when you see it and choose to continue to move forward with honesty.
“For too long, mentioning racism and calling out inequality and racism has really been seen as a nice thing to do, the thing to trumpet in glossy pamphlets. Diversity has been seen as an extra issue. But in reality, we need to know that we’re not doing Black people and people of color a favor by lending their voices and calling out racism and giving them voice in spaces. We’re actually making those spaces better. Inclusion and diversity has to be seen not as an extra thing, but at the core part of our society.”
The annual holiday observance, led by Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Tanisha Stevens and recorded at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center, didn’t only feature Alcindor. It also showcased the talents of UMSL students, in the thoughtful essays shared by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship recipients Donnie Tomlin and Jake Bain, the presentation by “Fundamentals of Acting” students under the direction of Associate Professor Jacqueline Thompson and the singing of first-year music education student Tierra Marie Gray, who performed “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and closed the program with “We Shall Overcome.”
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