Rosa Parks is a household name.
But how often are the contributions of Septima Clark spoken about? Dorothy Height? Ella Baker?
“One of the challenges that the civil rights movement had, broadly speaking, was a very pronounced patriarchy, and that patriarchy often left out the voices of many of the women contributors to the movement – significant contributors, the strategic and intellectual hubs of the movement,” said Simeon Banister, president of the Greater Rochester Martin Luther King Jr. Commission.
The commission organizes the annual Martin Luther King Day Community Celebration. This year’s event, from 9 to 11 a.m. Jan. 20 in Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre, pays tribute to women leaders of the freedom movement.
“They weren’t just bystanders,” Banister said. “They didn’t just happen to be in the room. They were leading the discussion and providing the strategy. They often were pushed out of the spotlight.”
Giving them their due is particularly important in 2020, which marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment and women’s right to vote. Angela Sims, president of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, is scheduled to deliver the keynote address, “Makers of History: The Women of the Movement.”
“That’s part of this year’s program, really refocusing out attention on many of those women,” Banister said. “As we think about Dr. King’s legacy, how many of these sisters were involved.”
Banister said that remembering historic figures as larger than life than be a disservice to the contributions of others. “Dr. King was a paragon figure. But he was connected to real-life people. That’s what we should all draw from, the motivation and inspiration is that all of us have a role to play in the fight for justice and equity.”
The commission also will present awards to people who are examples of King’s legacy.
“That is the nature of this event, to provide an annual spark of inspiration that hopefully carries people throughout the year to be engaged,” Banister said. “To keep the embers burning and hopefully walk out of the building and go do something. … In the day to day life it’s easy to lose track of it. You need a moment to be like, wait a second, why are we out here?”
The event is marking its 36th year. Banister, 38, was 7 years old when his parents first brought him. He has been involved in organizing the annual celebration for the past six years. Each year, he said he reads more of King’s works and thinks of what a modern-day freedom movement would look like.
Here are some of Banister’s reflections on King and on the role of the community celebration:
On what King’s legacy means to him:
I think that Dr. King’s legacy in a lot of ways has been sanitized and we’ve lost track of the way in which he really challenged a lot of the presumptions about the underpinnings of this country, the notion that this is the land of the free and the home of the brave. The notion that all people are created equal. He raised the specter of how the United States and how our society were not living up to those creeds. Particularly toward the end of his life he began to illustrate in painstaking detail and in a counterculture way exactly what that meant. … He pointed out three key evils: racism, poverty and militarism. At the time that he did that, it made him one of the most derided figures in the country. Particularly toward the end of his life, the vast majority of the country thought he had outlived his usefulness, that his critique of the Vietnam War was unappreciated. And now as we look back, a lot of his legacy has been washed out. We celebrate his stand on nonviolence, and we should, but there was more to the King legacy than that.
On bringing the community together to remember King:
The segregation is this community is very real. Even though it’s not segregation that’s legally mandated, it might as well be. For anybody that’s gone to a fancy restaurant or anyone that is trying to identify places where the illicit narcotics trade takes place, you know good and well this community is as segregated as it has been. This is one of the few events where you really do end up with people from all walks of life, all backgrounds, people coming together. Our goal every year is to try to identify a speaker who is willing to courageously and boldly speak on those issues.
On what the community can take away from the event:
We want to keep people remembering, and not only just remembering, but taking action themselves. There’s something we can do, we don’t have to sit on our hands and hope. The “I Have a Dream’ speech has been taken out of context as though that’s all one was intended to do, was dream. He wasn’t just dreaming. Frankly, that’s the reason he lost his life because he was willing to take action. … He asked this question, where do we go from here, chaos or community? How do we build a loving community. That’s the obligation we have. We also have the obligation to do that in the spirit of love, but not in a sappy, juvenile sense, but in a sense that there’s a deep respect of the very humanity of everybody we occupy this space with. That sense of humanity, that sense of love, requires us to sacrifice. That sacrifice is what justice is built on. In fact, Dr. King said it this way: Justice is love made public.
Women of the civil rights movement:
How many of the faces did you recognize in the collage at the top of this story? Here are names of the women pictured, from left to right, top to bottom row:
1. Jo Ann Robinson
2. Johnnie Carr
3. Thelma Glass
4. Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons
5. Daisy Bates
6. Fannie Lou Hamer
7. Rosa Parks
8. Coretta Scott King
9. Diane Nash
10. Ella Baker
11. Septima Clark
12. Dorothy Height
13. Angela Davis
14. Georgia Gilmore
15. Josephine Baker
16. Ruby Dee