Students, faculty and staff braved the snow to attend the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration speech in the Koons Activity Venue (KAV) at Elizabethtown College, Jan. 17. While the audience found their seats, King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech played in the background.
The speaker was Rev. Nathan Coleman, the pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania. He discussed King’s approach to social justice and how racism is a contemporary social issue hidden in society’s structure.
Director of Diversity and Inclusion Dr. Monica Smith invited Coleman to be the event’s speaker after meeting him at Eastern University. President Carl Strikwerda started the event by quoting King and introducing Coleman.
Coleman took the podium and began by warning the audience about romanticizing King. According to Coleman, romanticizing the past distracts from King’s contributions and sacrifices.
“Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a dangerous man who spoke dangerous words during a dangerous time,” Coleman said.
Coleman went on to argue that Martin Luther King Jr. Day is more than a day of service and remembrance; it is also a time for people to come together and hear each other’s stories. Coleman also encouraged the audience to participate in service projects and to reflect on the words and actions of King throughout the year.
“Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t about having a day on or a day off,” Coleman said.
Coleman also spoke about covert racism, such as white privilege, that can be caused by a society’s structure.
He used his father as an example. According to Coleman, his father was intelligent and good with numbers, but he never had the chance to go to college because he lacked the resources.
His second example was the 1987 “Nightline” episode with then-manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers Al Campanis. During a live interview for the show, Campanis made several racist comments about black baseball players.
According to Coleman, Campanis was a good person and close friend of Jackie Robinson, but that did not mean he was not a racist as well. Coleman made the point that racism is more than bad people and overt expressions.
Coleman explained his point further by using the metaphor of a leaning building. The builder could put in more good bricks, but what the building needs is a new design. While he talked, he leaned like the building in his metaphor.
Coleman tied this social issue back to King. During his “Beyond Vietnam” speech, King said that the civil rights and peace movements were connected and that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
King saw a connection between poverty in the U.S. and the Vietnam War that most people did not see at the time. The U.S. government was spending more on the war than on programs to help the poor. Black soldiers were fighting for rights in Vietnam that they did not have in the U.S.
Coleman encouraged the audience to pursue careers that will help change society and to stand against social injustice of all forms.
“I can’t just be concerned with racism, but also sexism, classism and all other isms,” Coleman said.
Coleman spoke about how many people, including J. Edgar Hoover, former President Lyndon Johnson and Carl Rowan, criticized King for his anti-Vietnam War stance, but that did not stop King from speaking out against injustice.
Coleman encouraged the audience to learn from King and to do the right thing, even if they face opposition.
“Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is my hero because he had the courage to speak when people were against him,” Coleman said.
A Q & A session followed the speech. Students, faculty and staff asked Coleman a variety of questions on topics ranging from his father to how the U.S. has progressed since the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Director of International Student Services Kristi Syrdahl brought up gentrification, which is renovating and improving a poor city district after more wealthy people move there.
Syrdahl connected this to Coleman’s words about social injustice being hidden in society’s structure.
“My biggest take-away was the importance of having a conversation about Martin Luther King Jr.,” senior Kaylin Echterling said. “I learned new things.”