It is Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s voice that is remembered today as one of the strongest megaphones of American courage — a voice that was able to move crowds to take to the streets and use their own voice.
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed,” spoke King in late August of 1963. “‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”
On Jan. 9, the voices of four generations will be hosting “Carrying on ‘The Dream’ of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.” in honor of the late reverend’s birthday.
Of those speaking are Rev. Dr. Samuel Berry McKinney, a former classmate and close friend of King; and Ali Saunders, a senior at Bainbridge High School and the president of BHS’ United Brothers and Sisters Club.
They sit at opposite ends of time.
One’s voice rings with the sound of a history some need to be reminded of. The latter’s voice speaks of the tribulations of a modern society that doesn’t stray too far from the tree.
McKinney and King met, as McKinney says it, when they were both “youngsters” before college. Both their fathers were pastors and sometimes they would go to church meetings together.
Like King’s father, McKinney’s father confronted civil rights issues in his sermons.
“My father was strong on social justice issues,” McKinney says. “So I guess it was since then in my DNA.”
But, after serving in the military, it was when McKinney returned to Atlanta to attend school at Morehouse College alongside King that they became closer friends. It was also during their years at Morehouse that the discourse of racial injustice began to ingrain itself into their theological studies.
Morehouse, a Baptist college, required students at the time to take a course on religion. McKinney intended on pursuing law but it was in one of these religion courses that he decided to take the path his father took before him.
“Law acts after the fact, religion acts on the front end,” McKinney says. “You want to be on the front end of change or the back end?”
At the same time, the president of the college, Dr. Elijah Mays, was developing a close relationship with King. King would later describe Mays as his “spiritual mentor” and “intellectual father.”
After college, King went on to become a pastor in Alabama while McKinney was sent to Seattle’s Mount Zion Baptist Church.
In the 1960s, McKinney participated in the civil rights movement as a church and community leader. He marched in Seattle and helped push for equal job, housing and educational opportunities. He was arrested with other church leaders while protesting apartheid in front of the South African consul’s home. He joined King in marches for equality in Washington, D.C., Selma and Montgomery, Ala. And in 1961, he arranged for King to speak in Seattle.
“I learned from my father how to describe our struggles,” said McKinney. “The struggle for justice, struggle for equality … the struggle of knowing which school you’re allowed to go to, of where you can live — that’s the struggle I’m talking about.”
More than 40 years after King’s assassination and McKinney’s marches, Ali Saunders moved to Bainbridge Island from Tacoma. And although her struggles speak of a different era, moving to a new place in the middle of high school encouraged her to also become part of a movement for unity.
King’s message reflected two key themes: the dignity of all human beings and bridging the gap between American democratic ideals and social practices. As a member and president of the United Brothers and Sisters Club at BHS, Saunders has helped build a support system that challenges students to act on those themes. The organization includes new students like her, foreign exchange students and others who are attracted to the camaraderie.
“Our motto is ‘Breaking down barriers, building up community,’” she said. “Our goal is to make Bainbridge Island the best; that no one has to sit alone at lunch.”
At the event next week, Saunders will be presenting her senior project as a video montage of interviews she conducted. In the interviews she asks students from all over the Puget Sound area why the unity King and McKinney spent their lives committed to is still relevant today. Saunders will also be unveiling a memorial to King on the school property by naming one of the school’s side streets Martin Luther King Jr. Way.
“Some people think that the election of Obama means we reached the ‘Promised Land,’ but it has stirred up more,” McKinney said. “The ‘Promised Land’ is where race is irrelevant, which is not yet true.”
Winners of the MLK Jr. essay and poetry contest hosted by BHS United Brothers and Sisters will also be confronting the topic of relevancy today. They will be presenting their work at the event under the prompt: “‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ This is a quote taken from Dr. King’s Letters from the Birmingham Jail. How do you feel about this quote? What does this quote mean to you? How can you use these words right here at BHS and in your community to honor Dr. King and the life he lived?”
Other speakers are Patricia Moncure Thomas, the principal at Browns Point Elementary School, author and president of the Black Historical Society of Kitsap County; State Rep. Drew Hansen, who authored “The Dream: The Speech That Inspired a Nation”; and Dr. Rosie Rimando Chareunsap, the vice president of South Seattle Community College, a BHS alum and one of the founding members and presidents of BHS United Brothers and Sisters.
The event will be held at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 9 at Bainbridge High School. Donations are appreciated.