Editor note: Patrick Nugent gave this keynote address at the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. breakfast in Rock Hall sponsored by the Chester Valley Ministers Association.Contributors also include Paris Mercier, Diana Moneke, and Paris Young.
I want to thank the Chester Valley Ministers Association for their continued commitment to opening this moment for reflection and renewed commitments. To the MLK Breakfast Planning Committee in particular, I can’t tell how you humbling this invitation is, especially because it comes from a group of leaders who have been so welcoming and inspiring to me over the past 4 years. To state it plainly, I have never felt as honored or as proud. Thank you for this invitation. I am deeply aware of the privilege that this opportunity represents and of the many other friends and colleagues in this room here today who deserve this microphone and whom I would love to be listening to and learning from this very moment. And so it is with a great humility and a great sense of respect for this moment that I have accepted your invitation to speak.
I want to start my remarks back in the spring of 1993 when I was thirteen years old. That Easter Sunday, I was gifted by my parents a bounded copy of Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” In elementary school, I had watched a video of Dr. King delivering his “I Have a Dream Speech,” but not until that Easter evening had I ever experienced his writing on the page – his complex definition of love, his strategy of nonviolent direct action, his unflinching moral courage. Better yet, as my parents had told me, he wrote this masterpiece from a jail-cell on bits of scrap-newspaper, and in little over a year, he had successfully pushed the Civil Rights Act through Congress. It was an astonishing story that made a 13 year old proud, energized, and fascinated to be American.
It also sparked my interest in history – the way King spanned 3,000 years of philosophy and politics; the way he rose above time reminding us of ancient stories and foreseeing the future; the way he could synthesize Socrates, Jesus, Jefferson, and James Meredith into one single, elegant argument. His view of time somehow made me feel both comfort and courage. His writing was so brilliant and yet so accessible. When I consider it today, reading King’s letter that Easter Sunday was the moment I became a public historian, a public historian not just interested in researching and writing history, but one who firmly believes that history can be a tool of compassion, community, and social justice.
And yet over the past three years both in my classes at Washington College and in many inspiring social justice meetings here in Kent County, I have heard many young people whom I greatly admire and respect very understandably point out “We are tired of history. We want action.” And as a mentor and fellow activist, I understand this frustration and I value their immediate demand for change.
But as a historian I have to admit that this has been jarring for me to hear. It is confusing for me to think about history and present-day activism as distinct or divorced from one another, or to think of history as stifling to positive social change. I’m guessing this frustration with history comes from the forced memorization of dates and the lists upon lists of generals and presidents and conquistadors and explorers. I think it probably comes from some, but not all, museums and historic houses and preservations districts and plantations and festivals and textbooks that seek to freeze history rather than address it.
So today, as a public historian, and as a life-long student of Dr. King’s writings, I thought I might explore the way Dr. King grappled with history in almost every sermon and essay he ever wrote, how he understood history as alive, as ever-present, as a powerful change-agent. How he forged again and again throughout his life what Cornel West described as a “subversive remembrance.” On this day of remembrance, I want us to ask how and what did King remember? How did he think of the past and its relationship to the present? How did he contemplate history while at the same time changing its course?
There is no doubt that the breadth and depth of Dr. King’s historical knowledge was nothing short of genius. On one hand, he was a global historian spanning three thousand years, and on the other, he was a local historian that could describe through the most keenly-observed details the story of a place or the trajectory of a child’s mind. He was a political historian of Colonialism and a social historian of repressed cultures. He was a military historian, who laid out the missteps of violent leaders and a student of peaceful resistance across the centuries. He wrote in detail about the history of slavery and its lasting impact on American society. He followed American empire from Venezuela to Vietnam. And he analyzed the long rise of white supremacy in this nation, laying out in detail four centuries of race-based federal subsidy.
Through all of this history, there is not a single moment when King listed out a string of detailed dates or used five syllable words when a shorter one would do. And he was never confined to a single era, or a single people – he brought together historical actors from all walks of life because their ideas were rich, even if they were not.
And there was always a purpose to King’s historical reflections. For example, King would always turn to history when justifying his case for non-violent activism. In Birmingham, when he was asked “Why Now?” he laid out what he called “the hard brutal facts of the case.” When he demanded fair housing in Chicago, he laid out a history of unequal federal investment across the segregated city. Wherever King directed his activism, he studied history to strengthen his moral stance and to clarify the target of his direct action.
Another way King harnessed history was in his search for the most effective ways to organize political resistance. King didn’t invent non-violent direct action. He adapted this approach from African American leaders like A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and Rosa Parks. He also learned it from Mahatma Ghandi, a man he described as living “the spirit of Jesus Christ…more completely…than anyone else in the modern world.” King read and wrote about Gandhi tirelessly. He even travelled to India to retrace the leader’s marches and protests. From all of these leaders, King learned how to wield economic boycotts and dramatic demonstration – how to force a seat at the negotiation table and to strengthen one’s hand at the same time.
Like Ghandi, Dr. King also relied on history to better empathize with worldviews not his own. He used history to better understand both urban rioting and the rise of black power in the late 1960s. These were strategies he did not entirely support, and yet he understood where they came from and he sought to explain to baffled onlookers the context out of which they emerged. Likewise, King sought not to chastise or castigate the individual white supremacist – as he argued, they were a product of history too. History, then, was the highest form of compassion for Dr. King. It allowed him to aim his sharpest criticisms toward what he called the “underlying causes” of injustice, rather than the individuals caught within their cycles.
Another way King harnessed history was to insist that African Americans were central to the American story. For King, better understanding history was critical to a proud and effective civil rights struggle. In his speech to middle-schoolers in Philadelphia, King urged his young audience to proudly announce, “I am Black and Beautiful,” and he then laid out for them three hundred years of black accomplishment from Crispus Attacks to Booker T. Washington to Marian Anderson to Muhammad Ali.
King knew too that the nation needed to fully come to terms with its long history of systemic white supremacy. “It is time for all of us to tell each other the truth,” King wrote in 1967, “no society can fully repress an ugly past when the ravages persist into the present.” That same year, King wrote of attending a concert at his son’s integrated elementary school in Atlanta. The performance was entitled “Music that Has Made America Great,” and yet the night featured not a single black spiritual, and ended with an enthusiastic rendition of the song “Dixie.” “I [went home and] wept that night,” King wrote afterwards. “I wept for all black children who have been denied a knowledge of their heritage; I wept for all white children, who, through daily miseducation, are taught that the Negro is irrelevant; I wept for all the white parents who are forced to overlook that the wealth of progress in America is a result of a commonwealth of contributions.” “This tendency to ignore the Negro’s contribution to American life,” King concluded, “is as old as the earliest history books and as a contemporary as this morning’s newspaper.”
Lastly, Dr. King used history as a vehicle for both perspective and persistence. In so many of his speeches, Dr. King rose above the current moment to peer broadly across time. When he did so early in his career, the “arc of the moral universe” as he put it, “always bent toward justice.” But by the mid-1960s, Dr. King was less sure which direction history was heading. His final speeches went back and forth between a promised land built on social and racial equity or what he called the bleached bones of a doomed world. One thing was for sure though: he was convinced these challenges would persist beyond his lifetime and that the solution would not be up to him – or any president or general or congressman. They would be decided by us, every-day, present-day Americans.
Dr. King’s history-informed view of present-day action was not new to humanity nor to the African American tradition. It could be found in ancient folk tales – like the Ghanian myth of the Sankofa bird, which flies forward only by looking back. You can see that Sankofa bird at the center of the Chesapeake Heartland logo designed I am so excited to say by Kent County’s own Gordon Wallace. Gordon describes the logo like this: “it depicts this community charting our way through the Chesapeake, looking back but always moving forward.”
And history-infused action can be heard in the song that gives its name to the title of today’s program: “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” “Sing a song / full of the faith that the dark past has taught us. Sing a song / full of the hope that the present has brought us,” the poem-turned song goes. When Augusta Savage was asked to create for the 1939 World’s Fair a sculpture to honor this song she molded the image of a harp, where ancestors and present-day generations, past and present, resonate in harmony.
And over the past four decades, hip-hop culture has done this very same work, mining the past for words, hooks, choruses, and beats – synthesizing them together into present day anthems. Ahmad looked back and moved forward all in one line: “Back in the day when I was young, I’m not a kid anymore.” And DMX reminds us “never forget where you from – or someone will remind you.” Nas “sips champagne watchin’ Gandhi till he’s charged.” While others “were busy imitating Al Capone,” Lauryn Hill insisted she was “gonna be Nina Simone.” Blackstar, a group named after Marcus Garvey’s cross-Atlantic cruise-liner, proclaimed “me and my people got history, these other rappers dumb it down considerably, our flow is historic, they can’t get rid of us, we lay law like Leviticus.” And Kendrick Lamar: “I got Loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA ….I got hustle, though, ambition, flow inside my DNA…I transform like this, perform like this, I got riches building in my DNA.” These are songs of action, songs of the moment, songs of moving forward, but all of them gather strength and perspective from looking back, from reinterpreting and building upon the past. And they don’t take history as a finished book either. To these artist – much like Kehinde Wiley’s new statue, Rumors of War – history is unfinished business in need of new voices, visions, and heroes.
And today, right here in Kent County, this principle and practice of looking back while moving forward can be found in Chesapeake Heartland: An African American Humanities Project, which is our community’s collaboration with the National Museum of African American History and Culture and several local partners – including Sumner Hall, Kent County Public Library, and the Kent Cultural Alliance – to document, digitize, and celebrate Kent County’s African American history and to put that history on a national stage where it truly belongs.
Having talked with hundreds of community members about this project – so many of you here today – it is clear that none of us want this project simply to study history in Kent County, but rather we believe it must contribute more than its fair share to making Kent County an evermore equitable and just place to live. It should help provide jobs and internships for high schools and college students; support black businesses, non-profits and mentor-groups; partner with and support our school system; and encourage cross-generational conversation and collaboration.
Like Dr. King, we want the history of Kent County to service the present moment: to be used to better understand contemporary injustice, to find models of effective activism, to take hope from our predecessors, to revise harmful mythologies, and to forge perspective and persistence.
I have found no better ambassadors of the Chesapeake Heartland project than my students at Washington College who have worked so hard in building it. They have come to know the power of this place – its past and its people – and they have asked to share a few words about what Chesapeake Heartland means to them.
Paris Mercier: “Hello – my name is Paris Mercier and I am Senior majoring in Political Science and Sociology. Four years ago, when I first came to Kent County to attend college, I was unsure what to expect. Living much of my life in California, I knew very little about the area and even less about the people that I would be living with. I struggled finding my place freshman year and did not know what the remaining three years would hold for me. Being apart of the Chesapeake Heartland Project has taught me ways to use my passions for advocacy in more ways than one. It makes me proud to walk in the footsteps of so many African Americans that have been makers of change here in Kent County and it has inspired me to leave a positive impact through this community-campus collaboration. Learning about past heroes like Isaac Mason, Henry Highland Garnet, and Jospehine Carr, and working beside contemporary leaders like Doncella Wilson and Paul Tue has inspired me to be bold and brave in the things that I stand for, even if that means you are standing alone for a while. Working with the people of Kent County and getting to know the history of African Americans in this community has made me a stronger, prouder leader.”
Diana Moneke: “Greetings, my name is Diana Moneke and I am a Freshman at Washington College majoring in English. In the words of Maya Angelou, ‘There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.’ Researching the impressive African American history found in Kent County, has taught me that this history is not simply just ‘history.’ This history is a measure of the thumping heartbeats that race rapidly as their waves crash up against the stream; this history is the key to so many untold stories. These stories mold into a perfect mural of music, laughter, joy, beauty, passion, pain, power, and grandma’s famous homemade white potato pie. Having the honor to be a part of the Chesapeake Heartland project has inspired me to lift my voice. As a student, I know it is time to not only be a voice, but to give voice back to the echoes of our ancestors. Working with the community leaders of Kent County and learning about their history has inspired me to be fearless, ambitious and meticulous as I march on to future endeavors, empowering others to lift their voices, adding them to the once-hidden mural now coming into focus. Kent County thank you for teaching me to unconditionally love being a fearless outspoken African American young woman who gallantly sings the tune of the unsung slave.”
Paris Young: “Good morning – my name is Paris Young and I am Junior at Washington College, majoring in Political Science. The Chesapeake Heartland Project has revealed to me how powerful it is to cultivate community bonds. It is so easy for us to think as individuals and to not care about people outside of ourselves and our family. But what this project has taught me is that we can love, be vulnerable and share moments with anyone and everyone in our community. I think the Kent County community exemplifies what it means to forge strong community bonds. One of my favorite things about working with this community is that not only does everyone know each other but you guys respect one another and show up for each other. Martin Luther King did not excel simply as an individual – it was his community that entrusted and empowered him to be a leader and with that he always made sure he put the needs of the Black community before his own personal gain. And we can see this with all social movements. They do not follow leaders, they create leaders. We cannot change society individually, we all must come together, just like what we are doing right now. Henry Highland Garnet knew this when he called for 4 million men and women to strike for their liberty. The freedom riders who marched down High Street knew this as well. Overall, I am very grateful for the friendships that I have made here in Kent County and for the stories that you have shared with our team. I will strive to emulate that shared community bond in my community back home and in my future work wherever it may take me.”
As Paris, Paris, and Diana point out, there is an astoundingly rich and deep African American history here in Kent County – one that deserves to be documented and shared and taught to a younger generation throughout this county and beyond. And, I am happy to say, there has never been a better moment to make this a reality. There are resources available; there are large and small organizations at the table; there are young and old storytellers ready to share their stories; there are retirees, mid-career veterans, and young professionals all ready to contribute their wisdom; there are black, white, and Latinx participants; and there is a radically inclusive structure continuously welcoming of leaders and participants into this mix.
I don’t mean to say that Chesapeake Heartland alone can solve the county’s issues of racial and social inequity by itself. But I do believe that Chesapeake Heartland can become one model – one model amongst many models in this county right now – of how a collaboration, a movement, an organization, an institution, can structure itself to actively disrupt this nation’s long history of systemic racism, a model of how a collaboration can strategize every day to be radically inclusive, how it can invest in diverse leadership, how it can genuinely share resources and authority, and how it can be all the stronger for doing these things. As an outlier, I believe Chesapeake Heartland can make a contribution to the way history is told in this county. But as a model among many models, I believe together we make this county a more safe, proud, and equitable place to live for all of its people.
I’ll get us out of here on this note: “Bull Connor didn’t know his history,” Martin Luther King wrote, referring to the infamous police chief in Birmingham, AL who intimidated and assaulted non-violent demonstrators. Bull Connor, King continued “knew a kind of physics that somehow didn’t relate to the trans-physics that we knew about….that we have a certain kind of fire that no water can put out.” That my friends is the challenge that brings us all here today. How can we turn the physics of our day-to-day lives, the physics of our organizations and community groups, the physics of our civic discourse and public spaces into a trans-physics capable of changing this county for the better. How do we take all of the pain and beauty of our deeply-intertwined histories and pass it on to the wise and morally-courageous leaders of today and tomorrow? Like that ancient Ghanaian Sankofa bird, how do we look back and fly forward at the same time? With such a deep, complex, and rich history, how can we not?
Patrick Nugent is is an urban, environmental, and public historian of twentieth-century America and serves as Deputy Director of Washington College’s Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience.
Paris Mercier is a senior at Washington College majoring in Political Science and Sociology while minoring in Justice, Law, and Society. She seeks to advocate for individuals and communities that are rooted in oppression by studying how society and politics can work together for all.
Diana Moneke is a freshman majoring in Mathematics and International Relations at Washington College. She wants to “turn up the volume” on significant writers in African American history and celebrate the African American heroes of Kent County.
Paris Young is a junior at Washington College majoring in Political Science and minoring in Black Studies and Justice, Law, and Society. She’s interested in bridging academia and activism by studying the Black experience across the diaspora.