Dream still alive, but attendance dwindles

Rani Gupta

During last year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration, students lined up an hour early to hear Jesse Jackson deliver a keynote speech to 1,400 people watching in person and through satellite locations.

But this year, the audience of about 400 barely spilled into the balcony of Pick-Staiger Concert Hall as Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles led Northwestern’s third annual MLK Day celebration. Another 50 people watched the celebration through Internet simulcasts at the Technological Institute and Leverone Hall.

Speech junior Le’Jamiel Goodall, chairman of the Associated Student Government MLK Day committee, said Kyles’ lack of name recognition probably led to the drop in attendance.

“Most people don’t really know Rev. Kyles and he doesn’t have the pull Jesse Jackson did,” Goodall said. “Nonetheless, I thought the program was awesome. It was the best one we’ve had in the past three years.”

The celebration also included a performance by the Northwestern Community Ensemble and a conceptual concert from opera singer Kevin Maynor, Music ’78, who interspersed text from King’s speeches with images and singing.

Kyles began his speech with a light anecdote about the creature comforts of a recent first-class flight, including a complementary set of pajamas, and wondered aloud how the airplane stayed on course.

“I looked out the window and there were no signs that said, ‘Tahiti straight ahead,'” Kyles said. “They follow that flight plan. Sometimes they have to make adjustments … But they always remember their destination.

“If you don’t have a flight plan for your life, you can land anywhere,” he said.

Kyles also stressed the need to address America’s legacy of slavery.

“It was awful to buy someone 50 down, $50 a month like they were cattle,” he said. “We have to put it on the table.”

Instead of ignoring the issue, people should recognize the overlooked accomplishments of slaves, who learned English phonetically and responded to food shortages by improvising dishes still prepared today.

Kyles also reflected on his experiences during the civil rights movement during the 1950s and 1960s. He once accompanied his daughter to a Memphis elementary school during the first steps of integration. They were faced with a hostile crowd of uniformed police officers, he said.

“They said the nastiest things to me and my daughter,” Kyles said. “She was five years old. She wasn’t going to destroy anything. She was going to get an education.”

Kyles said King filled his last speech, which almost didn’t take place because of fatigue and bad weather, with reflections on his own mortality.

“I am so certain he knew he wasn’t going to get (to the promised land),” Kyles said. “I think that night he preached the fear of death out of him.”

On April 4, 1968, Kyles went to King’s motel to pick up King for dinner. Because of a miscommunication about the dinner time, Kyles talked with King in his motel room during King’s last hour.

Of the three men in the room – Kyles, King and Rev. Ralph Abernathy – Kyles is the only survivor.

“I wondered for so many years why I was there (until) God revealed to me … I was there to be a witness,” Kyles said. “The witness has come here to tell you: The dream is still alive.”