Dream unrealized: Ahead of MLK dinner in Schaumburg, suburbanites say King's dream requires work
Suburban residents will honor the legacy of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at a pandemic-delayed dinner in Schaumburg Saturday, but civil rights activists stress it takes more than dinners, speeches and remembrances to foster the change King sought.
The minister, activist and civil rights leader was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 in the wake of his galvanizing "I Have a Dream" speech during the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Many suburbanites who believe King's dream remains unfulfilled 53 years later are calling people to action.
Much work still needs to be done to combat the racism King fought against, says the Rev. Clyde Brooks of Arlington Heights, chairman of the Illinois Commission on Diversity and Human Relations, which hosts Saturday's event.
"We need to stop talking about Dr. King's dream," says Brooks, who once marched with King. "A dream is hope ... but we have reached a point in this nation where it's a nightmare, it's not a dream."
Brooks will be leading the commission's 52nd Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Remembrance Dinner and Concert Saturday at the Renaissance Hotel in Schaumburg. The annual event, which was canceled last year and rescheduled several times due to COVID-19 restrictions, aims to be a reminder that the issues King fought for, such as voting rights and unity against racism, are ongoing struggles for people of color.
Unlike in previous years, this year's dinner will be an entirely musical affair featuring a performance by five-time Grammy Award-winning artists The Five Blind Boys of Alabama. The group is in the Gospel Music Hall of Fame and has performed at the White House and throughout the U.S. and Europe. The group was a favorite of King's and has featured a rotating cast of performers, most of them visually impaired, since the 1940s.
While there won't be any speeches, Brooks says he will set a tone of unity for the evening. He worries the divisive politics and fearmongering of the past several years have fueled racial tensions and the rise of hate groups nationwide.
"Going to a Dr. King dinner doesn't mean you believe in justice and equality," Brooks says. "If we're not living or fighting for the things that he dreamed or wanted, then we are hypocrites. We've got to wake up."
Civil rights advocates say the murder of George Floyd, on May 25, 2020, by a white Minneapolis police officer, which ignited global Black Lives Matter protests and a national racial reckoning, is yet another reminder of the persistence of racism and police brutality against communities of color.
"We're fighting the same battles that (King) had to fight," says Michael Childress, president of the NAACP of DuPage County. "That's why it's extremely important to not let the dream die."
Growing efforts to deny Black people constitutionally protected rights of assembly and voting are a backlash to advances made in improving race relations in the decades after King, Childress says.
"This will always be a struggle and a fight," he says. "But like Dr. King said, the moral arc is very long, but it always bends toward justice. The civil rights of a citizen is not a destination, it's a journey. There can't be a civil rights movement without all of the people."
That includes women, Muslims, Asians and LGBTQ+ allies, Childress says.
Changing structural racism requires a more truthful telling of history, adds Heidi Graham, president of the League of Women Voters of Arlington Heights, Mount Prospect, Buffalo Grove and surrounding areas.
Graham says history books have painted King in a way "that is comfortable for white people to digest."
"We have sanitized it," Graham says. "He was calling out progressive white people for sitting on the sidelines, and that is left out of the history. We have to recognize that being Black and being of color in this country is pretty much uncomfortable. As long as you insist on being comfortable, we are never going to make progress."
Recognizing just how much racism there is in society today can be exhausting, says Pete Warmenan, lead pastor of Our Saviours Church of Arlington Heights.
"We're going to always have to recognize that even when we can see racism in our rearview mirror, it will still be there and it will shape us," he says.
That's why teaching children about racism is crucial, says Warmenan, a fourth-generation Lutheran pastor whose parents were ardent King followers and observed Martin Luther King Jr. Day long before it became fashionable.
"It was in my household a really holy day," Warmenan says. "My parents did everything they could to teach me and my brothers to seek out diversity, to seek out other voices, and to get to know people who aren't exactly like us."
Warmenan says he takes inspiration from and feels a special connection to King, who was renamed after German theologian and monk Martin Luther -- the founder of Lutheranism more than 500 years ago.
"They both became these great reforming people of the world," Warmenan says. "Martin Luther King's dream ... it's a dream that you work hard for, that he gave his life for, and we need to live our lives that way, too."