People at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference luncheon Tuesday got a history lesson from a student of the slain civil rights leader they had come to commemorate.
“A lot of people will tell you they are a student of Martin Luther King Jr.,” said Julian Bond, veteran civil rights activist.
“But Martin Luther King Jr. only taught one class in his lifetime. There were only eight students in that class. I was one of the eight.”
Bond, now a distinguished professor of government at American University in Washington, D.C., was talking about 1962 at Morehouse College where he took a social philosophy class taught by King, one year before the civil rights leader would give his “I Have a Dream” speech in the nation’s capital.
Bond, on his 74th birthday, stood in a ballroom at the Sheraton Hotel at Crown Center and affirmed the theme of the MLK Day celebration, “The Legacy Continues.”
He followed several Kansas City officials and civic leaders who had mentioned how far the nation has come toward true racial equality and social justice in the last 50 years and how much work remains. The Rev. Sam Mann of Kansas City spoke briefly about the absence of a movement against poverty today, and vocalist Tami Woodard belted out a gospel tune that brought the audience to its feet.
The grandson of a biracial slave, Bond traced the history of the civil rights movement from its conception with the 1909 founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to its birth during the 1955 Montgomery, Ala., boycott, which led to King’s nonviolent protest for equality and social change and eventually the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
“It has been only a short 50 years since legal segregation was ended nationwide,” Bond said. But after more than 200 years of slavery, followed by 100 years of legal oppression, he said it would take more than 50 years of integration and one black president for this nation to realize complete racial equality.
“Paradoxically,” he said, “Barack Obama’s victory convinced many that all racial barriers and restrictions had been vanquished and we had entered racial nirvana across the land.”
The nation is not there yet, Bond said.
“The greatest impediment to achieving racial equality is the narcotic belief that we already have,” he said, quoting University of Connecticut historian William Jelani Cobb.
But he also said much has been accomplished to bring the country closer to King’s dream.
“For most of my adult life, I have been engaged in what once was called race work — fighting to make justice and fairness a reality for everyone,” said Bond, who in 1960 helped organize lunch counter sit-ins, voter registration rallies and the freedom rides that forced federal transportation integration laws.
“The racial picture in America has improved remarkably in my lifetime. Forward in the struggle. Inspired by the achievements of the past, sustained by a faith that knows no faltering, forward in the struggle.”