Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter quoted her father in a call for unity after a presidential election that bitterly divided the nation.
“We must learn how to live together as brothers and sisters or together we will perish as fools,” Bernice King told a racially mixed audience of about 2,000 people Sunday at the Church on the North Coast in Lorain.
King spoke as part of a “Unity Day Celebration” organized by the Urban League of Lorain County.
Frank Whitfield, the organization’s president and CEO, said the league traditionally holds an annual fundraising brunch
“For those of you who don’t know about nonprofits, we’re broke,” he said. “The way we raise money is putting on these rubber-chicken dinners and inviting people out and asking them to sponsor it and they don’t really have a good time, but they smile at you and act like they do. It’s the way we’re able to pay the bills.”
But with Lorain County in the midst of a heroin epidemic — there have been more than 100 fatal overdoses this year — and with massive job losses in Elyria and Lorain, Whitfield said he felt something more inspirational and meaningful than a brunch was needed.
He said he was also motivated by the police killings of black men in questionable circumstances nationally, the targeted killings of police officers and Baton Rouge and Dallas, and local tension between black people and police.
“We need to be trying to energize this community toward change,” Whitefield said. “Inclusive change. A change that honors all people. A change we all want to respect and follow.”
Whitfield said his group is forming a “collaborative” to come up with specifics. He said Bernice King was chosen to speak because she could inspire people.
King said those seeking racial unity are in for an uphill fight with the election of Republican Donald Trump, whose victory has energized white supremacists. She said many Americans are angry, discouraged, and fearful.
“We are in some very troubling days,” she said. “We have never seen time like this before and I pray we never see it again.”
King, a 53-year-old attorney and CEO of the King Center in Atlanta, said many liberals were shocked by the resurgence of white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, believing the election of President Barack Obama in 2008 demonstrated racism was declining. She urged the audience not to seek out saviors or rely on institutions like churches, government, and schools to deliver positive change.
Instead, she said “people power” is needed to deal with militarism, poverty, and racism in America.
“We ignored the fact that ‘I Have a Dream’ was not about one man but about the elevation of people,” King said. “We have a responsibility to create a world where we can coexist with all of our differences.”
King said anger over the election — in which Democrat Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by about 2.5 million votes, but lost due to the winner-take-all electoral college — is understandable. Nevertheless, King said unchanneled anger is destructive because it further isolates people from those with opposite political beliefs.
She said despite the racist and sexist remarks Trump made throughout the campaign, not all his supporters are haters. King urged the audience to get out of their comfort zone and have constructive dialogue with Trump supporters for moral and pragmatic reasons.
“We have to make some more allies, because otherwise you’re talking about eight years,” she said. “These are the same people who have got to vote again, y’all.”
The median annual income of Trump voters was $72,000, about 28 percent higher than the national median of $56,000, according to exit polling and the U.S. Census Bureau. Nonetheless, King said economic pain felt by some Trump voters was legitimate despite their “white privilege.” She said common ground could be found when people were willing to treat others with dignity despite their differences.
Several audience members were from Oberlin, which has a deep connection to Martin Luther King. He visited Oberlin four times.
The last visit was in 1965, when he delivered the Oberlin College commencement. King, who has a park in Oberlin named after him, was murdered by white supremacist James Earl Ray in 1968.
Oberlin resident Elizabeth Meadows said King’s inclusive message resonated with her.
“You have to reach out and talk to people who don’t necessarily share your opinion,” said Meadows, a former city councilwoman. “With the way things have been so toxic in our country for the last year-and-half, two years, it’s almost like she’s detoxing for this group.”
In closing her 55-minute speech, Bernice King drew on the rousing oratory of the black Baptist church that her father and grandfather were part of and a biblical passage of people feeding one another.
“When you begin to do that you will begin to see everybody prospering,” she said, to applause. “Fuss, fight, but get over it together children! Don’t you get weary! Work together! Hold on together! Struggle together children! Don’t you get weary! But please don’t forget to pray together, children, because you will get weary!”
Evan Goodenow can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @GoodenowNews on Twitter.
Photos by Evan Goodenow | Oberlin News-Tribune Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., spoke Sunday before about 2,000 people at the Church on the North Coast in Lorain.