Rev. Edwin Johnson encouraged attendees at this year’s Annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Gathering to consider their idols critically, acknowledging their full humanity rather than a “pristine fairytale.”
“MLK started out for me as that perfect hero who became a radical polarizing hero and ended up being a flawed and complicated hero,” said Johnson, rector of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church and the ceremony’s keynote speaker. “There’s some that wouldn’t use that word at all, but nonetheless, when I believe anybody would say he was a mover, he was a doer.”
On Monday evening, Campus Ministry honored King’s legacy with gospel readings, music, and speeches in the Murray Function Room.
Latifat Odetunde, the 2021 Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship recipient and MCAS ’22, spoke about her passion-evoking journey with Islamic faith at the event.
“Islam was my gateway to rediscovering myself while I was in college, which in turn has informed my passions and my form of activism,” Odetunde said.
Odetude discussed the motivation behind her YouTube channel, Black Muslim TV, where she said she interviews Black Muslims and compiles their stories into episodes.
“I felt that my religious identity was not being considered,” said Odetunde. “I felt a void in Black spaces lacking Muslim representation and in Muslim spaces that lack Black representation.
Throughout the night, the Voices of Freedom Combined Choir performed musical renditions of classic speeches, such as King’s “I Have A Dream.”
The choir was led by the powerful piano ballads of Donnell L. Patterson, minister of music at St. Paul’s A.M.E. Church.
Johnson shifted focus to the influence of King on Monday’s gathering, describing how his conception of the historical figure evolved over time.
“We were bombarded with these images and these stories that show how he advocated for everyone in the community,” Johnson said. “He was that wonderful, ultimate hero, and for me, as a Black male Christian, I was brought up with ‘Okay bro, this is who you need to be.’”
As the years passed, Johnson analyzed King’s work in different dimensions.
“I went from hearing about him [and] being taught about him to reading the things he wrote and paying closer attention to them,” Johnson said.
As the son of a veteran, Johnson said that King’s anti-war stance and general opposition to military service shook him. He also explained that hearing public scrutiny of King for the first time surprised him, and he began viewing King in a different light.
When he got older, Johnson’s relationship with King suddenly became even more complicated, he said.
“As I was in the process of engaging in my studies, I learned about allegations of plagiarism around the work that he did,” Johnson said. “What was even more challenging was hearing about [his] infidelity.”
Even further, Johnson said King’s treatment of women caused his perspective of his “radical hero” to shift.
“There are many amazing sister prophets and LGBTQ prophets in my life who really helped open my eyes to the fact that as wonderful as [MLK] was, many of the things he did were problematic,” Johnson said.
Johnson concluded his speech on an optimistic note, telling the audience there are lessons to be learned from King’s activism.
“In hindsight, when history and those around you point out the ways you can be better, take that opportunity to learn to be humble and try again,” Johnson said.
Featured Image by Nicole Vagra / Heights Editor