On the final day of the city of Lawrence’s weeklong celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and legacy, residents gathered in the Kansas Union ballroom to pose the question: Now what?
The evening, though a celebration of King and his accomplishments, focused largely on the progress still left to be made.
Keynote speaker Dr. Mildred Edwards, executive director of the Kansas African American Affairs Commission, recounted the story of her mother and father gathered around the TV to watch King’s now famous “I have a dream” speech. She said she believed that, were King alive today, he would be proud of the fact that such different people of such varied backgrounds could all sit and gather together. However, she also noted the still sizeable achievement gaps and social disparities that remain between white and black people.
“We still have miles and miles to go to create a fair and just society,” Edwards said.
Other speakers included Mayor Mike Amyx, public schools Superintendent Rick Doll, executive director of Haskell Indian Nations University Steve Prue and Rep. Barbara Ballard, who also led the group in several songs.
Ballard, on behalf of Gov. Sam Brownback, spoke of the significant role Kansas played in the Civil War and national civil rights movement. She also spoke of King’s commitment to change and the necessity of carrying that legacy forward.
“We hear about peace and justice and content of character, the dream and all of that,” Ballard said of King. “But actually, I think he would probably tell you that he was a man who did not look for a leadership role; it was thrust upon him. And if he doesn’t do it, who will? And I will say to you, if you don’t lead or participate, who will?”
Ernesto Hodison, of Lawrence, brought his son Ernesto II, who is a seventh-grader at West Junior High, to the event. He said it was important to remember the struggles that have created so many opportunities for him personally and to pass on that message to the next generation.
“For my son, always getting him to remember history helps him to appreciate where he’s at today, too,” Hodison said. “So he (King) opened up those doors, and for me, passing that on to my son, he now has the confidence to walk through those doors.”
But more than anything, speakers provided a message of hope that, one day, King’s dream would be fully realized.
“The struggle’s worth it,” Prue said. “Because what is at stake is the future of our children — the future of our nation.”