Building the beloved community

At UND’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day brunch, activist Rosalyn Pelles answers the question, ‘Where do we go from here?’

Civil rights activist Rosalyn Pelles talks at UND’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day brunch about King and his legacy. Photo by Shawna Schill/UND Today.

Classrooms were closed. The streets and sidewalks were quiet. But anyone who thought the University of North Dakota campus was asleep Monday morning should have joined the crowd gathered inside the Memorial Union’s Small Ballroom.

That’s where longtime civil rights and social justice activist Rosalyn Pelles brought the full house to its feet by delivering her “Where Do We Go From Here” speech at UND’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day brunch.

More than 150 masked guests attended the event hosted by Student Diversity & Inclusion. Hundreds more were able to take part via livestream.

Pelles, who began her own fight for social justice some 60 years ago as a 13-year-old in the Congress of Racial Equality, was introduced at the brunch as a “hero” by her son and UND’s own leader, Tamba-Kuii Bailey. An assistant professor in Education & Human Development, Bailey also serves as the University’s first special assistant to the president for diversity and inclusion.

More than 150 masked guests attended UND’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day brunch, an event hosted by Student Diversity & Inclusion. Photo by Shawna Schill/UND Today.

Beyond the dream

Though most people connect King to his famous “I Have a Dream” speech from the March on Washington, Pelles said it would be a mistake to “freeze” the social justice leader in that single moment in time. His message was so much more than a dream, she said. It was an urgent call to action.

“This federal holiday not only honors a great national leader and champion of civil rights, but it stands as a reminder of the long struggle in this country for civil and human rights,” Pelles said. “It challenges us to be vigilant in protecting these rights. And it is a call to all of us to hold America true to her promise of equality and fair treatment for all who live here.”

Pelles was among the 250,000 people gathered near the capital’s Lincoln Memorial that hot August day in 1963. Importantly, it was not King’s original intention to utter the words that would become one of America’s most celebrated speeches of the 20th century, she said.

As the story goes, the young and charismatic minister was in the middle of his speech at the jobs and freedom rally when gospel singer Mahalia Jackson called out, “Tell them about your dream, Martin! Tell them about the dream!”

That’s when King put aside his prepared remarks and improvised the dream section by pulling together thoughts from some of his previous speeches, Pelles said. His original speech actually was titled “Normalcy, Never Again.”

“It was called that because his speech was meant to be a call to action that day. It was a call to action in the wake of attacks on democracy and the unfulfilled promises of equality and basic human rights to Black Americans,” Pelles said. “King described the promises made by America as a promissory note on which America had defaulted.”

It was a “bad check,” and the time to act on that bad check was now.

“He said, ‘We refuse to believe that the Bank of Justice is bankrupt.’ And he instructed marchers to return home and to continue acting to make a difference.”

Quoting King, Pelles said: “We have come to this hallowed spot to demand America of the fierce urgency of now. There is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or taking the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.”

“These were not the words of one who only dreams,” she said. “This was but one example of the distortion of King’s words and deeds. … King could not be remembered as a dreamer or a great orator. He could not be frozen in time.”

He was so much more than that.

“He was a visionary, a preacher, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, a philosopher, a revolutionary, a good trouble-maker, a champion of nonviolent direct action and a truth-teller. He was all those things — all those things that we sometimes don’t hear about.”

Rosalyn Pelles was introduced at Monday’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day brunch by her son, Tamba-Kuii Bailey, UND’s first special assistant to the president for diversity and inclusion. Photo by Shawna Schill/UND Today.

In King’s footsteps

Pelles said she soaked up all of King’s teachings, and it was because of his work and his example that she has been deeply engaged in the struggle for social justice for six decades.

She recalled one of King’s earliest influences was when she was a young girl at her local church. It was headquarters for the civil rights movement in her hometown of Winston-Salem, N.C. And it was where she first learned the ways of King’s nonviolent protest, which she “practiced on picket lines and sit-ins at the segregated restaurants, movie houses and every other place” in her town.

“Even as a girl, Dr. King’s message resonated with me,” Pelles said. “I learned to stand up against injustice — even when people responded to peaceful protests with violence. I learned that nonviolence is transformative. And most of all, I learned justice eventually will win.”

It was the year after the Washington rally when she saw King again in person. This time he had come to her town to offer support for voter registration. She said she was proud at the time to tell him and everyone else who would listen that she was part of the team that had helped her 69-year-old grandfather register to vote for the very first time.

Today’s call to action

Pelles went on to tell of the many other actions King took to make an impact in the fight for social justice. He was almost an unknown, she said, when he was chosen in 1955 to be the spokesperson for the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in the “colored” section to a white passenger.

That led to him founding the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which took on issues of discrimination in transportation and voting rights. King brought attention to the unjust laws in the Jim Crow era, spoke out against unjust wars and defended all workers’ rights. He also was a big champion for the poor, and he brought together people of all races to fight against systemic racism. Those are just some of the reasons, Pelles said, that the memory of King must not be frozen in time in 1963.

It was in his last book, “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?” and at the 11th annual Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1967, Pelles said, that he was engaging with other civil rights leaders to figure out America’s next steps.

They were able to review about a decade’s worth of challenges and victories, she said, but they realized for all the progress that had been made, it still was not enough to raise the Black people out of their unjust plight.

“The country again is at a crossroads,” Pelles said. “In order to ask ‘where do we go from here,’ we must first honestly recognize where we are right now. The times in which we live today are in many ways similar to 1967. Yes, we’ve seen progress, but we’ve also seen backlash and retrenchment. Today, we see political and social polarization at an unprecedented level.

“So where do we go from here? It is my hope on this day that our answers can be found in our deepest-rooted moral and constitutional values. My hope is that we as a community and a nation are guided by our faith and moral conscience and our attention to continue to build a more perfect union … It is my hope that we together can work toward building the beloved community that King described years ago.

“It’s a vision in which all people can share the wealth of the earth. In the beloved community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. … Love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred. Peace with justice will prevail over war. All of that is the beloved community. …

“And so the best way,” Pelles said, “the very best way that we can honor Dr. King today and as we move forward is to choose community over chaos, to find the courage, the will and the divine dissatisfaction to act in service of building the beloved community. Thank you.”