By Dana Boone
It's easy for most Americans to conjure up the image of Martin Luther King Jr., saying "I have a dream." But, nearly 40 years after the death of the civil rights icon, many know little beyond that famous line.
That saddens Pulitzer prize-winning columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr., who discussed King's legacy with a crowd of 300 people at the state's 19th annual King celebration organized by the Iowa Commission on the Status of African-Americans.
"I get the feeling sometimes that as his era recedes ever further in history, that people understand less and less of who he was and how he fought not simply for African-Americans rights, but also for human rights, also against unjust war and also for racial, political and economic justice," said Pitts.
Gov. Chet Culver gave opening remarks. Violinist Daniel Davis wowed the crowd. Ambreyana Jones, 16, who attends East High School, moved the crowd with her a capella song. Passionate speeches from three Iowans who were honored for their civic work inspired the audience during the 90-minute celebration Monday at the State Historical Building. Burlington community activist Mary Stinson and teacher Ruth Ann Gaines of Des Moines each received King Lifetime Achievement awards. State Rep. Wayne Ford of Des Moines received the commission's newly created Pinnacle Award for his civic work.
Pitts recalled the recent controversy between presidential rivals Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama who clashed over remarks about King. Pitts called their argument "silly" but said it was good because it caused people to consider King's legacy.
"Without Dr. King and the moral crusade he led for 13 years, it would be impossible for us to conceive of a Barack Obama," Pitts said to applause. ". . . it would at least be a lot more difficult to conceive of a Hillary Clinton."
Even so, the nation worships a "cardboard cutout" of King and few people know much about the Nobel Prize winner beyond a few quotes, he said.
King, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, led the civil rights movement during the 1950s and `60s. He preached nonviolent protest and led marches and sit-ins to secure equal rights for blacks. His "I Have a Dream" speech was heard by hundreds of thousands during a historic rally in Washington, D.C., in 1963. King was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn., in 1968 and his birthday became a national holiday in 1983.
Today's struggles show "that we never did reach the promised land of which Martin Luther King spoke of on the last night of his life," Pitts said.
Racial inequities didn't end with the civil rights movement, Pitts said, pointing to recent studies about racial profiling, black farmers being denied loans and unequal criminal sentences. But, it's imperative that "we return to the man who got us this far," he said.
"To drop the cardboard cutout," Pitts said. "To exchange the image for the inspiration. To understand what he did and how he did it so that we can take the lesson of his example and use it to change our lives in the here and now."
Pitts took the audience on a history lesson. He talked about "separate but equal," Jim Crow laws and described how it must have felt for blacks in a world that had deemed them "inferior."
He described the brutal lynchings of blacks who were hung in trees, their skin peeled back from their "living face" and who were burned alive. A person in the audience gasped, "Lord, have mercy" when Pitts described how pieces of their bodies were used as souvenirs.
Others in the audience were similarly affected. Cousins Johnneisha Long, 11, and Takieyah Wells, 14, of Des Moines, had the day off from school and attended the event with several family members.
"I didn't know that all of that happened -- that they got burned, after the lynchings," said Johnneisha. "It was really informing. I learned a lot."
"How they treated us," she said sighing. "Some of the stuff I already knew because my mom and dad taught me, but some stuff I didn't really know."
Pitts reminded the audience to consider King's life and think about its relevancy to the daunting problems of today.
"Non-cooperation with evil is as much obligation as cooperation with good,'" Pitts said quoting King.
"There is upon us a debt of honor," Pitts added.