Dr. David Canton, director of the African American Studies Program at the University of Florida, says every day should be Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It’s about service, Canton says, but King’s work was also about transforming society.
“I want to feed the homeless,” he says. “But why are there homeless people?”
Canton was the keynote speaker Monday at the City of Alachua’s 16th Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Celebration held at the Cleather Hathcock Sr. Community Center.
The event, organized by Carol Velasques Richardson, chair of the Alachua County Arts Council, involved the arts in many forms. From a fashion show featuring hairstyles by B&B Salon and Supply, to the display of fine art paintings of artist Pedro Jermaine Perry. From the beating drums, to the singing of the National Anthem by Santa Fe High School Student Kiyanna Williams and dance performances by Ministries of Expressive Song & Dance.
And then came the words spoken by both Canton and State Rep. Yvonne Hinson.
Rep. Hinson told the crowd modern-day slavery exists in the form of mass incarceration and that the dream of MLK is yet to be fully realized. “Reach deep within our souls and emancipate ourselves,” Hinson said.
“A protest without policy is just a parade,” said Hinson, who denounced the actions by protesters at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6th. Hinson spoke about the bills she is working on to increase Florida education finance and to fund and to train and improve teacher effectiveness across the state.
But to do that, she said more people need to speak up and vote for change.
Dr. Canton took the stage and gave the audience a history lesson and a call to action. He said the country continues to face institutional and systemic racism as he explained the history of MLK’s name, education, religious upbringing and sermons.
Canton said that most people know a “sanitized version” of civil rights history that focuses on MLK but that overlooks the thousands of citizens who also played a role in desegregating the United States.
Injustice in health is a problem that MLK spoke of decades ago, Canton said, and he related that to the COVID-19 pandemic.
He said the nation needs to address health disparities: “Injustice in health is the most shocking and inhumane. While we’re busy dreaming, busy holding hands, folks are dying.”
Canton said that King tried to work with Lyndon B. Johnson and was concerned with money spent on the Vietnam War.
On April 4th, 1967, King gave his famous speech at Riverside Church to protest the Vietnam War, and many of his allies advised him not to combine civil rights with the anti-war movement, Canton said.
King also focused on poverty as a central issue, Canton said: “Poverty does not discriminate.”
In 2021, five states will not celebrate MLK Day, Canton noted: “Alabama, Mississippi, Utah, Idaho and New Hampshire do not refer to this day as MLK.” In Idaho, the day is known as Human Rights Day.
Canton explained to the crowd of about 85 people that there is no evidence of white people losing ground to black people when black people move up.
And Canton noted that despite taking prenatal vitamins and taking care of the body during pregnancy, the black infant mortality rate is double what white infant mortality rate is.
“These are systemic issues,” he said.
After covering the historical perspective, Canton tied King’s legacy to some of today’s issues.
“One cannot celebrate King and not support economic justice,” he said. “One cannot celebrate King and do not support affordable housing. One cannot celebrate King and do not support infrastructure funding. One cannot celebrate King and do not support the end of systemic racism.”
Canton said in 2021, “We should start from these positions that King would say are morally correct.”