Civic engagement opportunity today at library and SMSU

MARSHALL — It has been more than 50 years since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke his final words of wisdom and inspiration, but the reverberations remain even today.

King fought injustice with peaceful protests and always maintained a vision for a more diverse America where all people are able to enjoy the benefits of equality. And while echoes of racism still exist throughout the country, there are those who continue to remain optimistic that positive changes can and will happen in the future — some say it requires that people come together with open minds and hearts to begin difficult conversations.

It’s one of the reasons why the American Creed — Civic Engagement opportunity today is so important. Civic engagement helps promote the quality of life in communities, oftentimes through both political and non-political efforts. As it crosses party lines and spans the United States, the American Creed campaign asks: “What does it mean to be an American?”

With the support of a grant from the American Library Association, Southwest Minnesota State University and Pioneer Public Television worked in collaboration to host the two events today — noon in Charter Hall room 201 at SMSU and from 6:30- 8 p.m. at the Marshall-Lyon County Library. Both events are free and open to the public.

“It’s going to be a great event,” said Michele Knife Sterner, Access, Opportunity and Success specialist at SMSU.

Similar events that celebrated diversity and provided opportunities for discussions took place in mid-January on the SMSU campus. On Martin Luther King Day, keynote speaker Dr. Gwendolyn Middlebrooks explained why King’s message continues to be significant. She added that she thought SMSU’s 4th annual Dr. King Breakfast and Day of Service was really wonderful and very timely.

“It’s a teachable moment to try and spread the information because maybe people aren’t reading and maybe people aren’t being taught about the nonviolent technique that he presented to the world,” Middlebrooks said. “Of course, it was initiated in India by (Mahatma) Gandhi, but (King) was the one who brought it here and showed that it could be effective. Now that he’s gone, it’s incumbent upon us to try and make sure people understand his message.”

Middlebrooks participated in the Atlanta (Georgia) Student Movement and was a former babysitter for MLK and Coretta Scott King. She was a student at Spelman College during the time and later became an associate professor at the institution.

“When you harm me, you harm yourself because of the way the universe is put together collectively,” Middlebrooks said. “We need each other.”

Middlebrooks said the breakfast was a celebration in diversity.

“There were people who labored in fields and barnyards to get the food that we needed here and then there were people who drove the trucks here,” she said. “They do things we don’t want to. Then there are cooks and chefs, dietitians, nutritionists — they’re different from us. There are also people who choose to be waiters. All we had to do is walk in this room, pick up some food, sit down and eat it. It’s diversity that makes the world so perfect.”

SMSU President Dr. Connie Gores called the event inspiring, educational and informative — which is likely to parallel that of the American Creed event today.

“It was full of conversation and there was remarkably strong music and words of wisdom,” she said. “It was everything and more.”

Gores shared the words of Dr. King: “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.”

Thursday marked the 51st anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.

In honor of King’s passion regarding civic engagement, about 40 volunteers took part in a Marshall Food4Kids packing event. People also had the opportunity to attend Courageous Conversations.

“I was actually one of the hosts with (SMSU Provost) Dr. (Dwight) Watson,” SMSU junior Samuel Wreh said. “It was a bigger crowd this year, which was great. Anytime you get people to sit around and express themselves — a round table is nice because not everyone can talk within a bigger crowd — people start to open up a little more. It’s always an educational moment for everyone.”

Wreh said one of the questions was about dealing with discrimination and racism in one’s life.

“If you’re a black student growing up in Marshall, a small town that is predominantly white, you have to stay alert for certain things because sometimes people don’t understand how it feels to be discriminated against because they haven’t experienced it,” he said. “They might say racism doesn’t exist because they haven’t gotten that feeling before.”