by Kim Jones Sneed
Love of self, family, community, and God is a formula that America needs to be transformed into a better nation, according to Martin Luther King III. “And when you really love yourself, then you can love others,” King III said. “I was taught to love myself by my mother and father. I was taught to love my family, I was taught to love my community, and I was taught to love God.”
King III, who is the oldest son of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the late Coretta Scott King, was the keynote speaker during a Black History Month Program presented on Monday night, February 27, 2023, at the University of Arkansas at Bluff (UAPB). The event also served as the launch of UAPB’s year-long Sesquicentennial (150th) Celebration.
King III’s visit occurred 65 years after his father’s, who delivered the commencement address to the UAPB/AM&N Class of 1958. King III’s sister, Rev. Bernice King, was the speaker at UAPB’s fall commencement ceremony and was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree in 2015.
UAPB Chancellor Dr. Laurence B. Alexander thanked King III for traveling to Arkansas to join in “this historic occasion” and program attendees for helping to honor the King Family legacy. “This university was established in 1873 infinitely following the abolition of slavery as an institute for former slaves and their children to have the access and the opportunity to receive a higher education,” Dr. Alexander said. “So tonight, as we celebrate Black History Month, we commence a year-long celebration of this university that began in 1873 as Branch Normal College and later in 1927 transitioned to Arkansas Agricultural Mechanical and Normal College before it merged in 1972 with the University of Arkansas system to become the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.”
Dr. Alexander said that the 150th-year celebration is more than recognizing chronological years. “It’s about appreciating this institution was created not by accident but by divine providence with a singular vision – to be a tool to uplift African Americans. Our founders recognized that the education of Black people would ensure not merely survival but that those graduates to come would thrive.” Dr. Alexander mentioned a few of UAPB’s “stellar alumni,” including Dr. Samuel Kountz, Pamela Smith, Raye Jean Montaque, Dr. Samuel Massey, Byron Vaughns, and Mamie Parker.
King III said that change in America can happen through the power of unity.“I know we still can change things, but we’ve first got to start learning how to work together and not work against each other,” he told the audience of about 700 people as they applauded in H.O. Clemmons Arena. “We don’t have time for jealousy and hatred. People are always hating on each other.”
King III said it would be easy for him to embrace hatred. He revealed that he was ten years old when his father was killed “by a white man” and his grandmother was “gunned down in the church while playing ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ by a Black man.” He said that he was grateful that his grandfather, Martin Luther King Sr., taught him the value of forgiveness. “He used to say, ‘the man that killed my lovely wife nor the man that killed my son, I refuse to allow them to reduce me to hatred.’ So I have that in front of me,” King III said.
King III talked about the tragic death of Tyre Nichols, who was killed by five Black officers in Memphis. He said that the officers involved in this incident have hatred for themselves. “How in the name of God would you pull someone out of a vehicle, never tell them what they did and beat them to a pulp? That’s a hatred that we have been programmed to have against ourselves,” King III said.
He also described the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, and “countless others” killed by police as a tragedy that “we should not be accepting.” “We can change all of these things. How do I know? Because my father and his team and my mother and her team created a few good women and men, and they changed the whole dynamic.”
King III said that despite the negativity portrayed by the media, Black Lives Matter has made a “huge contribution” to the world. “After the tragic death of George Floyd, we saw demonstrations in every state in our nation. Many of those demonstrations were led by young white kids and older white mothers in all 50 states,” he said. King III added that demonstrations also took place in Europe, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and South America, with people chanting “Black lives matter.”
He stressed how critical it is to know one’s history. He also cited significant events that occurred in Alabama that he believed helped to shape African American history. “It is so important that we understand our history. It is said that a people who do not remember their history are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past,” he said.
“Most or many of the victories that we won in the modern civil rights movement were because of Alabama. Montgomery was the bus boycott where Rosa Parks sat down on December 1, 1955, and was arrested. And on December 5th, for 381 days, Black folks chose not to ride the buses,” King III said. During the boycott, Parks was the heroine, and Dr. King was the chief spokesperson, King III said.
“And then in 1963, 60 years ago, there was the Birmingham Campaign and the letters from the Birmingham jail that dad wrote. And then in 1963 was the march on Washington where he delivered the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. But also, in 1965, there was the Selma to Montgomery march, which gave us the legal right to vote. Of course, that was decimated in 2013 by the U.S. Supreme Court.” “My higher point is that Alabama was such a critical state that profoundly impacted our history.”
King III noted recent events that occurred including 300 students walking out of Hillcrest High School in Tuscaloosa, Alabama on February 8 because they could not be taught Black history prior to 1970. He said that this meant they could not be taught about slavery. “How could you not talk about the cruelest institution that our community has been exposed to?” King III asked the audience. “And they couldn’t talk about the modern Civil Rights Movement.”
He revealed that even this year, some are trying to exclude and prevent the teaching of Black history. Certain individuals are trying to place a narrative around the subject of Critical Race Theory, which is not taught in public, primary or secondary schools, but only in law school, he said.
“But yet they have created legislation in certain states that says you cannot teach anything that resembles something called Critical Race Theory again that does not exist except for in law school,” King III said. “They tell us that this is called ‘wokeness.’ I need to remind you that my father’s last message before he was killed on April 4, 1968, when he spoke in Washington at the National Cathedral, was entitled ‘Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.’ And now we have defined wokeness as something that is wrong, and that is moving our nation in the wrong direction, when wokeness is really moving our nation forward. We’ve got to be concerned about this because it impacts all of us.”
According to King III, African Americans spent $1.3 trillion in 2022. “But we haven’t learned how to retain money in the community. Money doesn’t circulate well in our community. “In many communities, money comes in, and it circulates in that community 12, 15, maybe 20 times. Then it goes back out. In our community, money comes in and goes right back out,” King III said.
He added that there needs to be an increase in understanding of how to access and build capital as well as start small businesses. “I hope some of you students are majoring in Business, creating opportunities for yourself, your family and the community. We need more and more African American businesses.” He stressed that education is a key foundation to future success. “Why else would you be at a college or university, an institution of higher learning, if you are not committed to learn?” King III asked.
King III encouraged students to consider running for office, school board, state representative, county commissioner or mayor. He referred to the Honorable Jaylen Smith, who was sworn in as mayor of Earle, Arkansas on January 2 as the youngest Black mayor in the nation. “We need young people to be engaged in leadership so that we can change in a positive way our nation,” King III said.
The program featured the UAPB Vesper Choir and the Marching Musical Machine of the Midsouth. The Spirit Team gave a historical glimpse of former members who are now accomplished alums.
photos by Carly Van Hook
Several student leaders also participated in the Black History Month program.
Trenten Wills, vice president of the Student Government Association, said that this was the first time since the pandemic to have an opportunity to be gathered in one room to celebrate Black History as a collective. He also acknowledged this year as being very exciting for UAPB. “For 150 years we have stood boldly unwavering from the abolishment of slavery to the trials and tribulations of civil injustice and even through a global pandemic. As of today…’Dear Mother’ is still standing and still flourishing,” Wills said.
During her greetings, Errayionna Jackson, the 93rd Miss UAPB, described the event as a “historical night for learning.” She said that UAPB’s mission emphasizes excellence in academic programs that integrate quality instruction, research in student in learning experiences. She welcomed the audience to the event and prepared them for King III. “I know his remarks will inspire and challenge us to be our best. So I implore you to listen, take notes and be considerate of how you should contribute to our Golden Lion legacy,” Jackson said.
Zach Webb, a Business Administration major who will graduate from UAPB this year, shared the purpose.“Your purpose here is because you believe in a brighter future. You believe in (King III’s) father. You believe that he had a dream, but we’ve only had a glimpse of the dream. We’re not content with where we are now in 2023,” Webb said as the audience applauded. “You wake up every day and you rise and you get out there regardless of the color of your skin…you have an appreciation and you will continue fighting for a dream and a better tomorrow.”