Stillwater’s commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day was both a celebration of progress made and a reminder of how much work is left to be done.
Mayor Will Joyce asked those present to take “vigorous and positive action” and said he hoped the evening would be a step toward a more connected community.
“It doesn’t happen if we don’t work at it,” Joyce said.
More than 140 people made the march from the Stillwater Public Library to the Stillwater Community Center, where the crowd grew to more than 300 people representing 39 different churches and organizations.
A community choir with singers from multiple churches led by three different choir directors, performed three different styles of inspirational music. Over the past 10 years, the celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has grown to include a diverse group of people from churches across Stillwater, longtime volunteer James White said.
White said he knew it was vital to reach out to more people after attending an MLK celebration in another city that only included three people who weren’t black. When he returned to Stillwater, he decided to work through the city’s churches because pastors have positions of respect and influence over large numbers of people.
That effort has been successful and now it’s time to reach out to other organizations, he said.
Adam Soltani, director of the Council on American Islamic Relations and an adjunct professor at Oklahoma State University, was the main speaker for the evening.
Soltani said as a muslim he has also experienced prejudice. CAIR exists to fight against what Soltani called instances of blatant racism, discrimination and intentional actions by people in power.
He says he was born in the U.S. and he considers America to be “the greatest country in the world, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have our challenges, and it doesn’t mean we don’t have our problems.”
It’s important for people to understand the history of our country and the racism that underlies its social structure.
“We are a country that was built on the
enslavement of black Africans,” he said. “That’s really the history of our country.”
He told the crowd that a former professor of his, Dr. George Henderson, was a part of the civil rights movement. When Soltani asked Henderson how much progress he thinks our country has made since then, Henderson told him he doesn’t see as much as people want to think.
“We’ve taken baby steps in the right direction, but really haven’t changed much since the 1950s, 1960s,” he said Henderson told him. “There are laws now and consequences, but we haven’t dealt with the underlying racism.”
Soltani asked people to do three things: 1. Recognize our history, 2. Talk to each other about what is going on when it comes to racism in our country and 3. Let us seek to start by loving one another.
“If we want to achieve something great, it starts from a place of loving one another,” he said. “Not just one another, but each and every other.”
Master of Ceremonies John Bartley called King a visionary who took on the work of fighting for equality and whose work we should continue. He challenged people to expand their own vision by exploring some of the history that is around us.
He also challenged people to get to know each other.
“Talk to your neighbors,” he said. “Talk to the people you’ve never met. … Now it’s our turn, and it always has been.”
White ended the evening with a prayer.
“I thank you for everyone who was here tonight, and please touch the hearts of those who weren’t,” he said.