‘We believe in freedom; we will not rest’

Inspiring words from civil rights leaders highlight UChicago’s MLK commemoration

“I did not come here to celebrate.” So began the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II’s keynote address to a captivated audience gathered to honor the legacy and life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“I think we’re in a time that we cannot merely celebrate our leaders of the past. We must imitate, we must reimagine and we must embrace,” said Barber, a social justice advocate and MacArthur fellow whose work included starting “Moral Monday” rallies in North Carolina to protest issues such as voter suppression and cuts in education funding.

Barber spoke on Jan 15 at the University of Chicago’s annual commemoration of Dr. King, which was held at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, where King twice spoke —in 1956 and 1959. In his remarks, Barber echoed the civil rights leader’s final sermon, given less than 24 hours before King’s death, saying: “Nothing would be more tragic than for us to turn back now.”

Barber reminded the audience that the key to not turning back is remembering that King’s words, inspiring to so many, grew upon a foundation of action and civil disobedience. “It’s such a misnomer to talk about his oratory and not his action. He called forth a movement—not just within the black community, but within the streets of the nation,” Barber said.

Since its inception in 1990, the UChicago’s annual commemoration has featured prominent speakers, including President Barack Obama, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and educator/activist Angela Davis. The event also provided an opportunity to recognize the recipients of the University’s Diversity Leadership Awards, given each year to UChicago faculty, alumni and staff who have made a significant impact in advancing diversity and social justice.

Baber was joined by Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, who noted in the evening’s second keynote that this year marked the 65th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education—the Supreme Court ruling on racial segregation that reshaped democracy.

Three years after that decision, King gave a speech at the Lincoln Memorial about the potential of black people to exercise real political power through voting. Ifill, referencing gerrymandering, voter ID laws, voter purges and moving polls, said: “A country that denies any of its citizens the vote cannot be regarded as a democracy. What should shame us in this country in 2019 is that we must still demand, ‘Give us the ballot!’”

But voting, as foundational as it is, cannot be simply about casting a ballot. Those who vote must hold the elected accountable because democratic values are not self-executing—even when those values win on Election Day.

“A country can take devastating and dangerous detours on the path forward, and we can see now how very fragile our democracy is.” Then, intoning Dr. King’s words, Ifill asked, “How long? Not long. Because no lie can live forever. But we must be there to call out the lie.”

Barber called upon the audience to act, concluding his speech to a standing ovation:

“Sounds like I hear the ancestors saying, ‘Stand up and be counted. Stop acting like this is the worst thing that we have ever seen. Do you remember slavery? Do you remember Jim Crow? What’s wrong with you?’

“The racists and oppressors of this day, they must not know who we are,” he added. “We believe in freedom; we will not rest. By faith we lived through slavery, by faith we lived through Jim Crow, by faith we got up this morning—and nothing, nothing, nothing would be more tragic than for us to turn back now.”