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January 20, 2014

From dream to dialogue: Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy remembered in Jeffersonville

JEFFERSONVILLE — Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of a world in which the content of a person’s character is more important than the color of his skin is much closer to reality than it was 50 years ago, but there’s still much work to be done.

That was the message Monday at St. Luke’s United Church of Christ, which opened its doors to members of other congregations and government leaders to memorialize King and celebrate his legacy.

“We’re not where we want to be, but we’re a long way from where we were,” said Gary Leavell, who sang “We Shall Overcome” through a bullhorn during a march from the Clark County Government Building to the church. “In order for us to get there, we must remember from whence we came.”

The march from the courthouse conjured memories of King’s anti-segregation activism, and particularly his organization of a bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala., following Rosa Parks’ decision to not give up her seat to a white man on a crowded city bus. A Jeffersonville city-owned trolley led the march to St. Luke’s, but those who could, walked behind it instead.

St. Luke’s Pastor Jennifer Mills-Knutsen recalled Parks’ decision and the year-long bus boycott that King and fellow activists organized.

“People started walking literally miles and miles to say ‘no’ to the buses until they were desegregated,” Mills-Knutsen said. “So people were wearing out shoes and burning blisters in their feet. They had backaches and aching feet and tired knees, bodies and souls in motion.

“That makes me ask the question of, ‘how can I and how can we be the kind of people Dr. King spoke about?’” she added. “Not just people who agree with the vision, not just people who support it or think it’s a good idea or want to say ‘yes’ to it, but the people who are actually willing to put our bodies and our souls in motion to make it a reality. Our goodwill is not enough. We have to do something.”

Mills-Knutsen, a white woman, argued that a dialogue among members of all races to reach greater understanding was important to achieving King’s dream. Instead of giving a speech to mark the celebration of King’s achievements, she held a dialogue with Flora Clipper, a black woman, about race.

“We don’t talk about our differences unless everybody looks like us already,” Mills-Knutsen said. “And I think it’s because those conversations are not easy to have, yet that’s what we ought to be doing, isn’t it?”

Clipper, 91, recalled the uncertainty that surrounded King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C., and amazement still crept into her face as she remembered experiencing fear before the speech and elation after.

“He talked about how we have to work together, pray together, go to jail together — and of course, he was experienced at that — to stand for freedom together,” Clipper said.

The occasion was well-attended by elected officials and candidates for office in the 2014 elections. Most prominent among them was Lt. Gov. Sue Ellsperman, who invoked the Declaration of Independence’s promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness when discussing King’s legacy.

“Minds were opened, laws were changed, and America became an improved representation of those foundational principles of freedom and equality. I firmly believe that our best tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. lies in each of us and must be reflected in our own actions,” Ellsperman said. “We honor his work and his memory, but we renew our own commitment to promoting and fostering the equality that he sought to achieve for all people.”

Other elected officials who spoke at the event included U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly via pre-recorded statement, State Sen. Ron Grooms (R-Jeffersonville), State Rep. Steve Stemler (D-Jeffersonville) and Jeffersonville Mayor Mike Moore.

“There’s no doubt much progress has been made,” Moore said. “But we can do so much more. It starts by committing ourselves to bridging the gap between white and black, rich and poor, and between the educated and uneducated.

“Our work isn’t done until we have fulfilled Dr. King’s dream. While we have done so much since his death, the journey isn’t over.”  


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