MLK Day a chance to reflect on history, divided nation

Civil Rights activist Gwendolyn Middlebrooks was the keynote speaker for the MLK breakfast held at the Southwest Minnesota State University Conference Center Ballroom Monday.

She knew the Martin Luther King Jr. family well. She’s a former babysitter for the King family and a longtime member of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. and his father served as co-pastors until King’s death in 1968.

She told the story of picketing in downtown Atlanta as a college student. Although they had been picketing for days, on one particular day, Middlebrooks said the mayor asked that they stay away because Klansmen planned on showing up. But they went ahead with the picketing, Middlebrooks said.

“I was picketing that day and this elderly white man, a little bit older than I’m now, was walking toward me,” she said. “And they had given us training — the students were very bright — they trained us on what to do if somebody hit you. How you should walk away and all of this and we were pledged to nonviolence.

“And this man that was walking toward me with a cane and cursing saying the N word and getting closer and closer and he was raising his cane up. I was not supposed to stop walking. I continued to walk toward him, but in my mind I was saying, ‘Am I going to let him hit me with that cane?’ And I just got close enough for him to hit me, but he had to put the cane back down to steady himself. I walked past him, got around the corner and went back to campus.”

Middlebrooks told those in the audience that she wondered afterwards on her commitment to nonviolence.

“You think you are nonviolent, but when the moment comes are you ready. It’s a moment in time. Can you really let somebody hit you?”

It’s a question we all can ponder these days with the hostile, sometimes hateful, discourse that is exhibited in this nation right now. The division among Americans has led to the partial government shutdown.

King’s daughter, the Rev. Bernice King, condemns the present division in our nation during her address at a commemorative service for MLK in Atlanta.

“Our humanity is literally on the verge of digressing to two Americas and becoming the dis-United State of America,” King said.

Early on in her speech, Middlebrooks reminded everyone that MLK Day should not be just another day off. The day should be a time to reflect on history and what we can learn from it — even here in southwest Minnesota. While today is much different than the 1960s, in some respects we are still grappling with some of the same issues.