A longtime political correspondent who covers urban issues from the White House told a crowd at ECU that comfort is not the goal of the civil rights movement.
April Ryan, an analyst for CNN and D.C. Bureau Chief for Urban Radio Networks, headlined East Carolina University’s celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Main Campus Student Center on Wednesday.
The speech was among several during the week in recognition of King’s birthday on Jan. 15 and the national holiday on Monday.
Ryan told the audience what King’s quote “I have a dream that one day, my four little children will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” meant to her.
She said it offered “hope for a better day,” added it can be “uncomfortable” to remember parts of King’s speech that challenges Americans to be “better than they were.”
“I want you to know this: Dr. King lived to make the comfortable uncomfortable. Once again, Dr. King lived, marched and talked and spoke about the disease in this nation and his personal disease to make the comfortable uncomfortable,” Ryan said. “All of this for equality, for America to live up to its promise.”
Ryan reminded the audience that King’s activism in 1963 wasn’t that long ago. She told the younger generation that these events occurred during their mothers’ and grandmothers’ time.
Sometimes people forget to tell their children about “the struggle,” she said, and it’s easy to be distracted by the inequality in America when everyone seems to have electronic devices and fashionable clothes.
“We forget what is important. We forget that we had an example who showed us ‘I am my sister’s keeper; no, I am my sister.’ We had an example who showed us ‘I am my brother’s keeper; no, I am my brother,’” Ryan said.
Ryan said that in 1963, King spoke to throngs in front of the Lincoln Memorial in hopes of a brighter future at a time when the United States was divided racially.
He wanted equality in public accommodations, Ryan said, telling the audience the story of Dr. Charles Drew, whose work established modern-day blood donation system. During Drew’s time, most hotels did not allow black people, she said.
Drew was driving from Tuskegee, Alabama, to his home in Washington, D.C., in 1950, when he fell asleep at the wheel due to a lack of accommodations. He was taken to the hospital but died of his injuries.
“He fell asleep, he couldn’t get there, and he died. He died because of a racist society. If this brilliant mind would have lived, imagine the advances that would’ve been made,” Ryan said.
King also was fighting for votes because many states in the South prevented black people from casting a ballot, Ryan said. In 1965, the voting rights act came to be, she said.
“But I’m going to tell you this day, I don’t care what race, what gender you are and I don’t care what party you are affiliated with, this man died, and so many others died, for the right for you to go to the poll and cast a vote and for your vote to count,” Ryan said.
King was killed April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was helping to organize black sanitation workers.
A period of rioting, looting and civil unrest after Kings death prompted President Lyndon B. Johnson to create a commission that published the 1968 Kerner Report, Ryan said.
The Kerner report found a deep frustration over the lack of opportunity summed up in a famous line: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”
She said the the report remains relevant today: “When people tell me we’re finished with racism ... Some people just don’t want to revisit the pain of the past when they see glimpses of it today,” Ryan said.
There was a six-week period between the assassination of King and Robert Kennedy, Ryan said. She said that if Kennedy and King would have lived, the civil rights movement may have transformed into an effort to champion all people in poverty.
Ryan said King would’ve been 91 years old if he were still alive and that King had been “dreaming” a few years before she was born.
“At 52, I have a dream that my two little children will be able to sit down with their little counterparts and talk about life without looking at each other’s skin color,” Ryan said.
“I dream of a day when all of us are free financially, equitably. I dream of a day when we all can be seen as people, not as a certain race or a certain condition.”