MLK Day speaker challenges others to ‘walk the talk’
Dr. Char Kunkel, a professor of sociology at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, was the guest speaker at the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Breakfast, held Monday at Plaza Morena in Owatonna.
This is a year of milestones in the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
It’s the 60th anniversary of the march on Washington, and his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
It’s the 55th anniversary of his assassination outside his hotel room in Memphis, Tenn.
It’s the 40th anniversary of honoring the famous civil rights icon with a federal holiday. Nearly 30 years ago, federal legislation designated it as a National Day of Service, encouraging Americans to volunteer to improve their communities.
Or, as Dr. Charlotte Kunkel might say, to “walk the talk.”
Kunkel was the guest speaker Monday at the annual MLK Day Breakfast at Plaza Morena, sponsored by the Owatonna Human Rights Commission, the City of Owatonna, and Riverland Community College.
“I would argue that today is more than just a holiday to honor Dr. King,” she said. “It’s a day to take time to reflect and commit to social justice. If we really think about the work of Martin Luther King, today is the day to commit to action, to walk the talk of equity and inclusion.”
Kunkel, of Rochester, is a professor of sociology and head of the identity studies department at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa.
She believes King “became politicized not at college, but while at seminary, where he realized we had to work for justice in the here and now, not in the afterlife.”
Though King is known – and often praised – for his stance on non-violence, Kunkel said, “he was adamant that direct action, such as protests and marching, were necessary to force the dominant culture to change, because we refused to do so.”
In his “Dream” speech, King said their presence in Washington, D.C. was “to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. There is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism… Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”
He spoke about “many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.”
King’s words are still pertinent, Kunkel said, “but I ask myself how far we’ve come, when I think how divided our country still is, in politics, in race relations, in gender rights … but still, the destiny of others is tied up in our destiny.
“In his most famous speech, Dr. King reminded us that we must see each other as brothers and sisters, that we must walk together,” Kunkel said. “We need collective action more than dreams.”
The racial differences remain in poverty rates, incarceration rates, high school graduation rates, home ownership rates – and societally. Just 25% of white people interact with someone of another race on a regular basis, she said
And while Owatonna’s numbers are better than average, everyone has work to do, Kunkel said.
“I believe that you are all here today because you believe in the message of Martin Luther King Jr.,” she said. “You have dreams of a racially just world; you want to make a difference. But all too often, good people get stuck, because they don’t know what to do or how to do it.”
Kunkel offered three things “to change the world in 2023.”
First, she said, “build community. To do the work of social justice, you need allies. This work is hard; it’s emotional, and sometimes dangerous. You need someone to have your back – and to celebrate with.”
Next, get uncomfortable.
“Martin Luther King Jr. talked about positive tension,” Kunkel said. “To make change, there will be tension. We only really learn when we encounter something we don’t know, so you’ll have to get out of your comfort zone. To someone who doesn’t understand growth, it can look like complete destruction,” much like a seed when it starts to germinate.
Getting uncomfortable could mean tutoring someone in English, or going to a jail or homeless shelter, she said. “What are you going to risk? I challenge you to explore.”
Finally, get specific.
Too often, Kunkel said, our answers are vague, unclear, or undoable.
“What exactly does a socially just world look like?” she asked. “Anti-racism isn’t going to come about by all of us simply being nicer; we have to make social policy change, structural, institutional change in order to end racism.”
Kunkel’s advice is to name a specific, achievable goal, and “dare to set a date.”
She issued a final challenge to the group, something to do at next year’s MLK breakfast.
“I challenge you to say, ‘We did this. We made some measurable change.’ We can honor and celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. by walking the talk, one step at a time,” Kunkel said. “It’s time.”