“I was so proud of the speech my dad had given. I knew it was special – a watershed moment in American history. Never before had I heard a leader articulate what he did.”
The “dad” to whom the speaker was referring was civil rights icon Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The speech? The iconic “I Have A Dream” address at the 1963 March on Washington. The son who was so inspired by those stirring words? Martin Luther King III, who was the featured speaker at the annual Siena lecture series event that bears his parents’ names.
“That speech was an indelible part of my upbringing and it sustains me still,” said the man who is now a global humanitarian in his own right.
King spoke May 3 at the UHY Center on “Strengthening the Bonds of Racial Justice,” which echoed Siena’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. He was also awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters. It was the College’s 35th annual Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King Lecture.
He told the audience he was honored to take part in the series named after his parents.
“They were great to me not because of their roles in the civil rights movement but simply because they were my mother and father.”
King was 10 when his father was assassinated in 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. His family, led by their late mother Coretta Scott King, has carried on the work of making lasting change for social justice in the United States and throughout the world.
During King’s address he drew parallels between the struggles of the 1960s and today’s injustices. He noted to his audience the key role played by college students in the civil rights movement.
“Students and young people were pivotal to the movement,” he said. “They marched, they led rallies, they led boycotts, they took part in civil disobedience campaigns. We must continue to call for peace.”
With the civil rights movement in America far from over, King asked the audience to “serve humanity as a force for peace and justice.”
“Please accept the chalice of becoming a peacemaker. Everyone can contribute to this cause in some way.” In one of his biggest applause lines, he stressed the importance of voting, as crucial now to a functioning democracy as it was when his father peacefully advocated for voting rights.
“Register to vote and cast ballots for the candidates of your choice,” he said, while stressing the urgent need for new voting rights legislation. “Don’t ever let it be said that you did not have your chance at the ballot box. Electing the right people is only half the battle, though. We have to stay on them once they are in office.”
He praised the recent Black Lives Matter protests for rejuvenating interest in civil rights.
“When history called, you answered,” he said. “We still need active visionaries in this movement; let our lives continue to be filled with good deeds and commitment to justice.”
Regarding the debates surrounding critical race theory, King said “we must not get bogged down in academic terminology.”
“It is important, though, that our children are taught truthful history.”
With the war in Ukraine now in its third month, King said he hoped that young people in Russia would protest against their country’s invasion of their neighboring nation. He encouraged Siena students reach out to them on social media to promote and support protests.
“We must address these issues with a sense of urgency,” he said. “We cannot be silent while bombs are dropping on Ukraine.”
Latasha Diedrick ’23 introduced King at the start of his talk.
“This past year, our nation has confronted social injustice, violence and confusion around the global pandemic,” she said. “In fact, perhaps at no other time in our recent history has our world needed the clear thinking and solutions-oriented voice of Martin Luther King the Third.”
King was the third member of his iconic family to speak at Siena: his mother addressed the Siena community in 1986 when she was awarded an honorary doctor of laws degree. His sister, the Rev. Bernice King, spoke in 2002.