ST PETER — So often, and especially on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, King is honored as an orator and remembered for his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Cathy Cohen — who delivered the annual MLK Memorial Lecture at Gustavus Adolphus College Monday morning — said she prefers to speak on King’s final years before his death in 1968, when he focused on being an activist for unpopular causes.
In 1967-68, King was devoted to fighting poverty and encouraged people to summon the courage to speak on behalf of those who have less. That King, she said, was “rarely the leader glorified on this day,” yet he was arguably doing his most important work.
Cohen, a leading scholar on race and politics from Chicago, drew numerous parallels between King’s vision during that period and the work that still needs to happen today, even under the Barack Obama administration, she said. She read a quote from King that was especially poignant to her, asking all of us to understand the humanity of the people we call our enemies.
As an example of the relevance of this passage, she recalled the murder of Derrion Albert on the south side of Chicago in 2009. Albert, a 16-year-old honor student at Christian Fenger Academy, was walking home when he was jumped, beaten and stomped to death by two rival factions from different neighborhoods. Albert did not know his attackers and was in no way connected to the fight.
“Derrion Albert did everything we asked of him,” Cohen said, referring to his plans to attend college and being an upstanding youth in the community. And, she said, Albert and his family certainly deserved the outpouring of sympathy they received.
However, justice should not simply end with prison terms for his attackers, she said. Focusing simply on the innocent victim of “black rage” does nothing to highlight the complicated experience of being young and black in society today, she said.