On May 29, 1964, Martin Luther King Jr. spent 11 hours in San Diego. He made a stop at San Diego State University, a local Black church and journeyed to PLNU — then Cal Western University — to give his speech titled “Remaining Awake through a Great Revolution.” One year removed from his “I Have A Dream” speech, King was advocating for the National Civil Rights Act, which would pass less than a month later.
He stood perched atop a wooden platform overlooking a diverse sea of eager listeners in what is now Golden Gymnasium. While his hands clenched onto the podium, King’s booming voice reverberated off the gym’s walls and into the hearts of the 6,000 people who held onto every word as if each one were keepsakes.
That was only 56 years ago. The “only” is important and it’s there to provide context. Black people were enslaved for 246 years, and Jim Crow laws lasted another 89 years after that. See, my mom was born in May 1964. The current climate of civil unrest around the world isn’t anything new. As I scroll through social media, I continue to see the black and white images of King and the Civil Rights Movement, and people borrowing pull quotes from Google to ease the pain. But there’s a common misconception. The black and white images that we’ve grown accustomed to have construed our minds to think those events were a long time ago. Black history, when brought up in conversation — especially with white people — garners responses like a nice, “Oh, but that was many, many years ago” or a snark, “Get over it already.”
In his speech, King discussed the myth of time. “It is the notion that only time can solve the problem of racial injustice. And there are those who often sincerely say to the Negro and his allies in the white community, ‘Why don’t you slow up? Stop pushing things so fast. Only time can solve the problem,’” King said.
On May 25, 2020, a Minnesota police officer held his knee on George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, killing him in the street and on camera for the world to see. The protests that ensue across the country are in direct response to the police continuing to kill Black people. Along with Floyd, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, Elijah McClain — and the list unfortunately goes on — have lost their lives while the police officers walk away without the proper consequences given to them.
Our glaring reality is hashtagging #saytheirnames on social media, chanting “No justice, no peace” through the streets of our respected cities, and printing “I can’t breathe” on our protective masks as we continue to align in solidarity amidst a global pandemic. The thing is, my mom has been saying their names before she even knew them. My grandparents have been saying their names. My great-grandparents have been saying their names, too. Now, we’re yelling, we’re screaming, and, most importantly, we’re grieving.
Within his “Remaining Awake through a Great Revolution” speech, King spoke about remaining figuratively awake in one’s life because, if they do not, they will miss out on an opportunity to change the course of history. In other words, “Stay woke.”
Now, we’re yelling, we’re screaming, and, most importantly, we’re grieving.
“One of the great liabilities of history is that all too many people find themselves amid great periods of social change and yet they fail to achieve the new mental outlook and the new attitudes that the new situation demands,” said King in his speech at PLNU. “All too many people find themselves sleeping through a revolution.”
Bennye Kate Seraile was one of the thousands that was in attendance that day in 1964. The mother of Kimberly Bogan, associate dean of Student Success and Wellness at PLNU, said she identified with the struggle because she was born in Mississippi. Raised and educated in the rural, segregated South in the 1930s, Seraile moved to California after earning her elementary education teaching credential. She was the first Black female teacher hired in San Diego’s Oceanside School District.
“I remember that there were so many people; it was exhilarating to be in the company of Martin Luther King,” Seraile said via e-mail when I interviewed her for the 50th anniversary of the historic event in 2014. “As I listened to him speak, I felt as if there was more to be done.” And yet, there is still more to be done.
PLNU’s Chief Diversity Officer and Associate Vice President for Student Development, Jeffery Carr, and I discussed that idea of a generational gap between now and then, how we’ve only read about it in history books and heard horror stories from our elders, but living through that moment in history, he feels like it was a different time. “In terms of the Civil Rights Movement, it means totally different things to [young people of this generation] as they do for me,” Carr explained to me in 2014. “You are only able to see it through the lenses of historical events and not the emotion, not through the actual changes that we, as a people, went through at that time … You could never feel that; you can never understand that.”
But we do. Because, in this America, the same injustices keep happening to people of color. In 2020, there has been an earthquake-like shift in the nation over these past few months. The excuses of being asleep during this revolution are no longer valid; it’s impossible. The Black community can’t go at this alone, though. A vicious rerun continues to play in our minds and in our hearts. There needs to be strong allyship within other communities that don’t look like us. PLNU, as wonderful an institution as it is, made me hyper aware of the color of my skin during my four years in attendance, and unfortunately I adopted the role of the “token Black friend” too often. I’m human — just like you. And my community is calling on you to dig deeper and walk alongside us. Posting that MLK quote onto social media does nothing if you don’t have a full understanding of what he was fighting for, what we’re still fighting for. Our Black lives matter — they always have and they always will.
“The greatest damage is that folks feel that those are not real issues today,” said Carr referring to King’s ‘Myth of Time’ section of the speech. “[King] talked about time being the greatest enemy that we have. People think that ‘in time’ things are just going to change and that we don’t have to do anything. He preached, ‘No, time isn’t going to do anything unless you do something.’”
The darkest corners of Black history were not that long ago. Emmett Till, the 14-year-old boy who was lynched in 1955, would’ve been 79 this year. Seventy-nine. How old are your grandparents? “I am 56 and it is very unfortunate that my children’s generation still has to live in the fear of my grandparent’s generation,” my dad said to me a few weeks ago. It reminded me of a clip of novelist and activist James Baldwin in an interview discussing racism where he states, matter of factly: “You’ve always told me it takes time. It’s taken my father’s time. My mother’s time. My uncle’s time. My brother’s and my sister’s time. My niece’s and my nephew’s time. How much time do you want for your ‘progress?’” The time is now.
On that spring day in San Diego, Martin Luther King’s rhetoric aimed to defang the notion that the fight for civil rights hung its hat on a calendar date or a clock’s strike. He spoke life into a packed gymnasium that continues to echo across generations. “Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God. And without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation,” King said, as if he was speaking to you and me today. “So we must help time and realize that the time is always right to do right.”