Historian, author, and professor Crystal Sanders discusses the hard work needed to reach Martin Luther King Jr.’s “promised land”

Although snow dusted the ground across campus and cold air whipped through the trees, inside Hayes Auditorium Chief Diversity Officer Charles Gibson III gave a warm welcome to the attendees and guests of the annual Lees-McRae Martin Luther King Jr. Day commemoration event on Monday, Jan. 23.

The theme of this year’s event, “Lessons from the Mountaintop: Revelations from the Promised Land,” drew on ideas and principles outlined in King’s final speech delivered on the eve of his assassination, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” Speakers and performers throughout the evening examined King’s life and legacy through his words in the speech and reflected on how we can continue to climb toward the liberative mountaintop that he referenced.

After a welcome from Gibson and an opening prayer by Campus Chaplain Ted Henry, President Lee King kicked off the evening’s remarks with his own musings on the speech at hand. He drew parallels between the mountaintop referenced in Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech and the well-known Bible story, “The Parable of the Good Samaritan,” in which a Jewish man who has been beaten and left for dead while travelling down the steep and winding road from Jerusalem to Jericho receives help and kindness from a Samaritan despite the tensions between their people.

“While the view from the mountaintop lets us see the promised land, and the hope of things to come, it’s in the valleys and on the dangerous roads down from the lofty heights where we find the opportunities to love. To go beyond what society would expect,” King said. “It’s in those valleys and on those winding roads where we have the best chance to make a difference by changing lives and loving and serving unconditionally.”

King challenged the students, faculty, staff, and community guests present that evening to listen closely to this lesson when thinking about how to make a difference in their communities and bring society closer to a promised land where Americans can thrive regardless of race. He encouraged the audience to leave the breathtaking views visible from the mountaintop and commit themselves to service in the valleys so that a promised land can be possible for all.

The theme of climbing the road to this metaphorical peak and helping those along the way continued throughout the evening and into the event’s keynote address delivered by award-winning historian, author, and professor at Emory University Crystal Sanders.

Sanders, who earned her doctorate in history from Northwestern University and is an expert in African American history, Black women’s history, and the history of Black education, focused on the path to the promised land in her speech, and spoke about the long road ahead that we must climb to reach true equality and the elimination of racism.

“We are not living in a promised land. I do believe, however, that we can get closer to the promised land that Dr. King alluded to,” Sanders said. “We have the ability as a nation to overcome racial inequality; the question is whether or not we have the will.”

Sanders went on to outline three lessons she believes will quicken the nation’s collective journey to long-lasting racial progress, if only we have the will to make them so. Remembering King’s true mission and understanding the reality of his legacy was Sanders’ first lesson. She emphasized that a miscasting of the man and a misremembering of his work to fit modern-day priorities and agendas waters down his memory and does not require us to question and critically examine the major societal institutions that King resisted and pushed back against throughout his life as an activist.

“We have downplayed Dr. King’s politics and version of the promised land in order to make him corporate-friendly, mainstream-accessible, and comfortable to people of various political persuasions,” Sanders said.

Breaking the silences held by white, wealthy, and other privileged people when it comes to daily inequality and injustices and having faith that a better world is possible were Sanders’ second and third lessons to bring society closer to King’s imagined promised land.

The common thread through each of these lessons emphasized a level of hard work and discomfort that is needed in order to make them a reality. Sanders said that activists and allies must be willing to put themselves out to a degree, for change is never easy or painless. She challenged the audience to speak out, educate the people in their communities, and never give up on the fight for a better world.

“If we believe in a promised land, if we value and desire a promised land, then we must inconvenience ourselves to make it happen,” Sanders said.

Watch the full event

Read about last year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day ceremony, “The Fierce Urgency of Now: An Experiential Evening to Remember the Life of Martin Luther King Jr.

A Dead Man's Dream

by Carl Wendell Hines Jr.

As part of her keynote address, Sanders recited this poem by North Carolina-born poet Carl Wendell Hines Jr. She cited this poem as support for her first strategy in getting closer to the promised land: understanding King’s true legacy and remembering who he really was.

Now that he is safely dead,
Let us praise him.
Build monuments to his glory.
Sing Hosannas to his name.

Dead men make such convenient heroes.
For they cannot rise to challenge the images
That we might fashion from their lives.
It is easier to build monuments
Than to build a better world.

So now that he is safely dead,
We, with eased consciences will
Teach our children that he was a great man,
Knowing that the cause for which he
Lived is still a cause
And the dream for which he died is still a dream.
A dead man’s dream.

It Is Now

by Morgan Gray

Gray, a junior currently pursuing a Wildlife Biology major and Wildlife Rehabilitation minor, wrote this original poem which sheand recited it at the commemoration ceremony ahead of Sanders’ keynote address.

A sliver cracks through the blockade.
An opportunity present at this moment for America.
A chance to make it better when all that has
ever been done was compare us to the white society.

Attempting to pit each of us against each other.
But one has to remember, when slaves ban together,
that’s the beginning to ending slavery.
In this moment it is now we must maintain unity,

to show the determination that we are people.
It is no longer violence or nonviolence,
instead, nonviolence or nonexistence.
Here we battle for what our country gave us from the start.

Where it becomes reading the freedom of assembly,
reading the freedom of speech,
reading the freedom of press,
reading the right to protest for right.

We were given all this from the start,
yet time and time again we get shut down.
We get beat on the streets. We get thrown in jail.
Slurs thrown at us like a tornado ripping through a house.

All of this for what? Because we speak up for our rights.
Because we too are God’s children. And as God’s children,
no more sitting and laughing about the unfair treatment to us.
No, never again. Because now. Now we mean business.

By Maya JarrellJanuary 26, 2023
CommunityCampus Life