January 20, 2009
Professor, musician say King’s ‘dream’ echoes in Obama
Bob Ellis/staff photographer
Local musician Oscar Davis, left, sings the 1970’s hit “Love Train” as a group of children form a train around the room during his performance Monday during a celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day at the YWCA.
CORTLAND — Betty Brevett remembers sitting at home watching the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his now-famous “I Have a Dream” speech when it was broadcast live on television in 1963.
“It was stirring,” said Brevett, 83.
Brevett, a Cortland resident, grew up in New York City. She said much has changed socially since King’s speech, and those changes are very noticeable.
“People are enormously different now, when in my childhood you were unsure of even sitting next to a black person on the subway,” she said.
King, who was assassinated in 1968, would now be 80 years old. The Martin Luther King Jr. Day federal holiday celebrated Monday came a day before the inauguration of Barack Obama, the first black president in United States history.
A SUNY Cortland professor and a local musician, who each appeared at the Cortland YWCA Monday, explained that both Obama and King represent progress in American society.
Brevett was one of many local residents who attended the celebration at the YWCA.
Distinguished Teaching Professor and Political Science and Africana Studies Chair Dr. Seth Asumah, said the “dream” King spoke of is still relevant today.
Nearly 60 people sat among nine tables set up in the Osborne Room at the YWCA, listening to Asumah and local musician Oscar Davis’s performance as well, said YWCA Child Care Director Jamie Bistocchi.
Asumah and Davis came to the YWCA partly to celebrate the holiday, but also to reinforce the significance of Obama’s inauguration.
“The cat’s out of the bag,” Davis said of King’s message of unity among the races. “Now we have to apply and work to make it real.”
To Cortland resident Josh Jorgensen, King represented a need for tolerance, but the holiday itself seems to have lost its luster.
“It’s not so much about Martin Luther King anymore,” Jorgensen, 20, said. “In all respect, it’s just another holiday where you get off from school.”
Jorgensen feels the distinct purpose of celebrating the holiday has never been made fully clear.
During his speech, Asumah said King represented the idea that people need to work together to improve society.
“We must all make personal commitments to acquire a just society,” he said.
Davis performed four songs in the gymnasium, each with an underlying message of civil rights. The highlight of the selections was his own “There’s a Brother in the White House,” in reference to Obama.
His last number, “Love Train,” got the audience of about 30 people involved. A day care group of about 40 children lined up, smiling and dancing around the room to the beat.
Davis, 60, grew up in Harlem as King became more well-known nationwide. He said Obama’s election only serves to remind people what King’s message was about.
Like Brevett, Davis said the most dramatic change since those days is that prejudice has become less of a popular idea.
Asumah, 52, said the parallels between King and Obama are apparent, emphasizing the new president is a bridge in the civil rights movement.
Asumah attributed Obama’s popularity to his savviness as a politician.
“He represented that kind of view without emphasizing racial divisions,” Asumah said. “Some call him the post-racial president.”
The civil rights movement is not over, Asumah said, and it has been a long path.
Asumah noted the Montgomery bus boycott, Rosa Parks, the Brown v. Board of Education ruling that established segregation as unequal and the first black U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall as significant points along that path.
As Obama begins his first presidential term, he, like King, lives in what Asumah called a “disjointed multicultural America.”
Like King and Vietnam, Obama too must deal with an unpopular war — Iraq.
Jorgensen said he finds Obama to be a compelling figure because of his ideas for change, but does not view him solely as a black president.
“Presidents don’t have a color, they have a job,” Jorgensen said.
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