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January 26, 2004

Yolanda King brings history alive in dramatic presentation

By Louise Donahue

In a presentation that was part speech and part performance, Yolanda King took her audience on a trip back in time at UCSC’s 20th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Convocation.

photo of Yolanda King

Yolanda King spoke January 20 at UCSC's 20th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Convocation. Photos by Victor Schiffrin

photo of Yolanda King

“We must never forget the sacrifices made,” King, eldest child of Martin Luther King, told an overflow crowd at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium on January 20.

“For some of you, the civil rights movement might seem like ancient history, but it was live, in living color.”

Driving home the point, actress-producer King punctuated her talk with dramatic vignettes from her traveling theater production, Achieving the Dream.

Vivid portrayals included Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on the bus, terrified demonstrators in Birmingham, Ala., being attacked by police dogs and fire hoses, and a young woman marching in the Poor People’s Campaign after Martin Luther King was assassinated.

King reminded the audience that the young demonstrators in Birmingham persisted, despite the attacks, and succeeded in desegregating that city.

“We today have that same power if we but choose it, but choose it we must,” King said. “What makes each of us unique is the individual choices we make.” There will always be doubters, those who prefer inaction, she noted. “I have heard it all, but I am still a believer in the dream. I choose to believe.”

“We can throw up our hands in despair,” King said, “we can write off the millions that are homeless, or we can choose to believe in a different way and we can do our share to bring that world into being.”

King noted the different ways her father has been honored since his death. “It’s far easier to build monuments than it is to build a better world,” she said. “My job, the job of all Americans, is to make that dream a reality. Our very survival is at stake.”

King criticized attempts to seek a “color blind” society, however, calling such an approach “naïve, unrealistic and probably unhealthy. We must learn to respect and embrace the difference.”

For universities, this means teaching about diversity and confronting the mistakes of the past, she suggested. Outside the classroom, in everything from dining hall menu items to roommate assignments, “you can make a real difference,” she told students.

Responding to audience questions, King urged students to become involved in the political process. “It bothers me that young people don’t vote. It’s imperative that you not just work with politicians, but on politicians. Put some pressure on, put some heat on.”

Asked whether she would endorse Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich for president, King said she was not ready to make an endorsement in the race, but that she was very supportive of his candidacy. “I like him a lot.”

Following her speech, King was presented with a key to the city of Santa Cruz and a sculpture from Santa Cruz artist Barrington McLean, who created the large bust of Martin Luther King displayed on the convocation stage. UCSC Chancellor M.R.C. Greenwood, who delivered welcoming remarks before King’s speech, was honored by the convocation planning committee “for keeping the dream alive” through her support of the annual convocation.

Related link: January 5 Currents story on Yolanda King

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