“We shall overcome. We shall overcome someday.”
These simple yet powerful lyrics rang out from the crowd gathered Monday at the corner of East Vine and South Pleasant streets to honor the life of Martin Luther King Jr.
With arms interlocked, nearly 80 people — young and old and of many ethnicities — huddled together in the bitter cold for the 50th anniversary of King’s death.
Standing near the King Monument in the park that bears the civil rights leader’s name, city council member Sharon Pearson reflected on the nation’s turbulent political climate and invoked King’s legacy to call those in attendance to action.
“What have we done or what are we planning to do in Oberlin as a result of his efforts?” she asked. “Dr. Martin Luther King’s paraphrased words were, ‘Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.’ I believe this current federal political climate around race urges us not to be silent but to take action and to make a difference.”
At the time of his death, King was fighting for issues concerning economic inequality, employment, full citizenship, and access to safe and affordable housing.
“How are we working to eliminate racism and hate? How are we making it our priority to be inclusive and diverse?” Pearson asked. “I believe the time has come for us to stop talking and to take action.”
Under the leadership of then-city manager Bob Thomas, Oberlin celebrated King’s birthday for the first time in 1971, according to the city’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day proclamation, which was read by Pearson. The federal holiday was established in 1986.
“It is now our generation’s responsibility to honor the life and memory of Dr. King by answering his powerful calls to action and by continuing to fight for his legacy of equality for all,” the proclamation states.
King’s first visit to Oberlin was in February 1957 after the end of the 381-day Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama. In 1963, after catching a flu, and against his doctors ordered, King gave a two minute speech that was awarded a three-minute standing ovation at Oberlin College.
Another visit came in October 1964 after King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He spoke at Finney Chapel, focusing on America’s path to racial integration.
In 1965, King was named an honorary alumnus of the college and delivered the commencement address to graduating seniors.
Former council member Elizabeth Meadows recited a litany, detailing King’s life and legacy in his own words.
“This is what he said,” Meadows read. “‘One of the tragedies of humanity’s long trek has been the limiting of neighborly concern to tribe, race, class, or nation… Our world is a neighborhood. We must learn to live together as brothers (and sisters), or we will perish as fools. For I submit, nothing will be done until people put their bodies and souls into this.’”
“To this dream we rededicate ourselves,” the crowd responded in unison.
Laurie Hamame can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @HamameNews on Twitter.