Even in country’s darkest hours, MLK speakers say its future is in our hands

Civil rights leader, pastor empower audience at UChicago event to make a difference

As the Rev. Dr. Otis Moss Jr. spoke at the University of Chicago’s annual commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights leader encouraged the audience to recognize their potential to make an impact. “We can, we must, we will make a difference!” rang out a chorus, in unison.

“This is our role, our responsibility, and our mission: to consciously and unconsciously keep doors open, to keep the liberation thrust going, to carry on the transformation and revolution, even when you are not conscious of it,” said Moss Jr., a pastor who has been an activist and advocate for social justice for more than 60 years.

Moss Jr. and his son, the Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III delivered keynote addresses on Jan. 28 at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, where King himself spoke both in 1956 and 1959. In his remarks, Moss Jr., who was a close associate and friend of Dr. King’s, underscored an important lesson from King’s life: One’s actions, however small they may seem, can ripple into the future in unforeseen ways.

“You don’t know how much power you have,” he said, asking everyone in attendance to look down at their own hands. “These are the hands of God. When anybody asks you: ‘Where is the liberation? Where is the revolution? Where is the salvation?’ It’s in your hands.”

Since it began in 1990, UChicago’s annual commemoration honoring the life and legacy of Dr. King has featured prominent speakers, including President Barack Obama, educator/activist Angela Davis and the Rev. Jesse Jackson—who was in the audience this year. The event also provided an opportunity to recognize the recipients of this year’s Diversity Leadership Awards, given to UChicago faculty, alumni and staff who have made a significant impact in advancing diversity and social justice.

During Moss Jr.’s remarks, he passed on to his son a copy of Dr. King’s Where Do We Go From Here containing a personal note from Dr. King. The book had inspired Moss III since he was a child. In his own keynote, Moss III referenced a 1967 service at his father’s church led by Dr. King, who discussed a biblical passage about someone in need knocking on your door at midnight.

“Think of a knock at America’s midnight. The light of the mythic dawn has been replaced by the darkening skies of America’s refusal to face her history and pull back the veil of social dysfunction lurking beneath our democracy,” said Moss III, the senior pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.

“It’s midnight when children are caged and mothers weep. The same nation that prides itself in prosperity in economic realm is the same nation where it’s easier to purchase a gun than a child to get a scholarship to college. There is a man knocking at midnight on the door of a home that he believes should be open.”

Moss III has dedicated his career to advancing the cause of civil rights and social justice, and he received a 2016 NAACP Image Award in recognition of his work.

The despair at midnight is not the end of the story, of course. Moss III went on to describe the life of Robert Smalls, an African enslaved in the South who hijacked a Confederate warship, became the first African American captain in the Union Army, bought the plantation where he had been a slave, started four schools, ran for Congress—and won.

“So do not tell me what we cannot do,” Moss III intoned, adding he forgot to tell us a few things.

“It may be dark, but the bad news is, it’s midnight. And the good news is, it’s midnight. You need to understand that anytime it’s midnight, that means that morning has already come,” he said. “We shall overcome, because King was right: No lie can live forever.”