Jack Hill gave a lecture on the legacy of Dr. King at Canio’s Books on Saturday. Photo credit Kathryn Szoka.
By Mara Certic
Dozens of people squeezed into Canio’s Books on Saturday to hear not just about the many accomplishments and achievements of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but to understand his legacy and why his message remains relevant and important today.
Professor Jack C. Hill is a writer, educator and diversity advocate, and is currently dean of World Languages and World Literatures at the Ross School. Mr. Hill has begun doing research on Dr. King for a book he is working on, he said on Saturday.
His fascination with Dr. King began in childhood, he said, when his mother would recount stories of the great leader and orator who sought out to change unjust laws during the Civil Rights movement.
However, during his discussion with Sag Harbor residents and Ross Students taking him up on his offers of extra credit, Mr. Hill chose not to speak about what Dr. King accomplished, but how he accomplished it and why that is pertinent today.
“Dr. King held no political office, and yet he is still one of the most important Americans in history,” Mr. Hill said, comparing him to both Presidents Lincoln and Washington. “He is an embodiment of American democracy.”
Mr. Hill, whose writing has appeared in publications such as The Baltimore Sun, Afro American and The Chicago Defender, spoke at length about the power and strength of Dr. King’s rhetoric.
By intertwining biblical themes with African American tradition, “He forged his own identity, and used it to connect with people across racial and economic boundaries,” Mr. Hill said
“When Martin Luther King spoke, it was almost like he was singing. It pierced the soul of people of all colors; people were sort of enthralled with it,” he added.
“But we don’t talk about the fact that he had a lot of practice,” Mr. Hill said, referencing the years many Dr. King spent at Morehouse College, where he regularly preached to seas of fellow students.
It is important that we remember the uncomfortable details of Dr. King’s life, Mr. Hill said. It is important to recall that Dr. King wrote the words “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” while in a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama.
“Martin Luther King was a political prisoner. That’s one of those provocative things we don’t talk about. We don’t like to see this great American a prisoner. But he was jailed over 26 times,” Mr. Hill said.
“We would much rather see him on the podium talking about these American ideals. But in 1963, he was writing as a Birmingham prisoner. He saw himself as a political prisoner—and we have to talk about that,” he said.
The 50 to 60 threats a day against Dr. King’s wife and four children, also must not be forgotten, Mr. Hill said. Nor should the fact that Dr. King refused to seek revenge after his house was bombed. “That’s what I call focus, and a dedication to the movement,” he said.
Mr. Hill attributed much of Dr. King’s success to his singular ability to inspire a movement and raise the consciousness of a nation. According to Mr. Hill, movements such as Occupy Wall Street failed because there wasn’t one organized leader who carefully strategized, as Dr. King did.
“This is a question we’re dealing with in Ferguson,” said Mr. Hill, who has spent considerable time in St. Louis.
“I don’t think it’s an anti-police position, but it’s a group of people who have been suffering for a long time but have not been heard,” he added.
“We live in a country where African American people are stressed. They work harder for less, get paid less, pay more for less. So again when we think about the American Dream, we cannot adapt this idea of color blindness, because color blindness does not exist. We cannot teach our children to be color blind, but we can teach them not to be afraid of race,” Mr. Hill said.