By Sara Fullerton
This year, Willamette’s MLK Day keynote speaker Andre E. Johnson set out to disrupt the myth of MLK as an unequivocally optimistic figure and rather honor King’s legacy by introducing the audience to King as the multi-dimensional figure he was. Johnson synthesizes King’s outlooks that may seem polarized or mutually exclusive at face value. He refuses to accept the simplistic and “sanitized” version of King that is widely circulated and celebrated today.
As Johnson said, this version lulls many into believing that “our work is done,” and was done on that remembered day in 1963 through the March on Washington.
Johnson’s keynote speech, “Why America May Go to Hell,” shares its name with one of King’s own lesser known speeches. Johnson presented the provocative and pessimistic aspects of King’s rhetoric, not to expose him as contradictory, but rather to afford him a humanity that is not reducible to the most palatable version of himself.
He explained that too often this nation lifts up King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in absence of context to complicate it or address the ways in which we have still failed to even approach America’s ideals of freedom, justice, equality and sanctuary. In Johnson’s view, though, we can take comfort in our shared American ideology without supposing or pretending that we are already there.
Johnson highlighted how hope and pessimism can coexist. To him, the ultimate act of hope is to bear witness to the truth, to feel the weight of that and to never give up. King’s pessimism did not detract from his stubborn perseverance. Johnson called hope a “refusal to be stopped.”
A stunning act of hope he mentioned was the Ferguson protests following Mike Brown’s death. Those protests were not meaningful because of their optimism. Rather, their power sprang from the protestors’ willingness to show up for days and months, to persist through the cold days of winter to demonstrate to those in power just how much they cared.
And so, as Johnson inquired in his 2013 MLK Day speech at Viterbo University, “Why are we here? . . . What did we expect to hear?”
Johnson declared that in 2018, 50 years after the final speech King could deliver, we are “not even close to the promised land” he spoke of. “Where do we go from here?” Johnson asked.
Johnson implores us all to to stand up against the injustices we see and risk the possible repercussions of that, as he explains in his words, “put our bodies on the line.”
In the same breath, he calls for intentionality around activism, knowing which days it is important to show up, which ones it is best to step back and allowing ourselves to have lightness and joy even as we bear witness to truths that are ugly and heavy.
Bearing witness to the truth of our current political climate and criminal justice system, we cannot treat King as the hero and solver of race relations. Johnson says that King’s legacy cannot be reduced to just one day of service. It must be about having the patience, endurance and passion to sustain an awareness of the current conditions, and to refuse to consent to the dream of American exceptionalism as its values remain unactualized.