Text: Shirley Haasnoot | Photos: Peter Valckx
In 1963, Reverend Martin Luther King was in a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama. He had been arrested after leading a protest march here against racial segregation. In his cell, he started to write an open letter. Earlier that year in Washington, King had already delivered his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. Behind bars in Birmingham, King called for action: 'We know from painful experience that freedom is never freely given by the oppressor; it must be claimed by the oppressed.'
'Freedom must be claimed by the oppressed'
King's letter, smuggled out of jail by his lawyer, was printed by several American newspapers and formed the core of his famous book Why We Can't Wait in 1964. On Monday, 9 October, 60 years after King’s arrest in Alabama, this title was the theme of visiting professor Anthony Bogues' Martin Luther King Lecture 2023.
Bogues is a professor at American Brown University and from this academic year until 2027 a visiting professor at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. He grew up in Jamaica where he received his doctorate from the University of the West Indies in 1994. In his introduction, Rector Magnificus Jeroen Geurts called him a world-renowned researcher of ‘the black voice’.
Why we can't wait is a political document, Bogues said in the Aula, with more than 600 guests in the audience this year. He described King as a prophetic black intellectual who lived as he thought and spoke, and a man who opposed moderation and passivity. Not the dreaming, but the radical King was therefore the focus of this evening.
Problems do not disappear by ignoring them
'Action is what sets us apart as human beings,' said Bogues, who was emphatic about the broader meaning of King's words. For the problems in our world today also require urgent attention and action: anti-black racism, climate change, war and the continuing legacy of colonialism and slavery. Problems do not disappear by ignoring them. 'Only confrontation, direct action, as King said, challenges the diseases of the present age.'
'The rector of my school had very little confidence in my school results'
That King's legacy continues to inspire was also evident in the contributions of the other speakers. Franc Weerwind, demissionary Minister for Legal Protection, is the first black minister in the Netherlands in more than 100 years. He told how, as a Dutch child with Surinamese parents, he experienced what apartheid meant.
'For example, the rector of my school had little faith in my school results beforehand. And a little later the entrance door of the disco shut right in front of me just a bit too often.' Weerwind emphasized personal responsibility. ‘Every individual is responsible for our shared future.’
'Gaza has 1.3 million brown people living in the largest open-air prison in the world'
VU professor of Global Economic and Social History Pepijn Brandon then spoke about the Dutch slavery past that still resonates. He concluded that we are far from the full equality on which, in King's view, no compromise was possible.
Also, two days after the Hamas massacre in southern Israel, he gently called attention to the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza, whom he described as ‘the 1.3 million brown people living in the largest open-air prison in the world’. It earned him spontaneous applause.
Love drives out hate was Kings most important lesson
Later in the evening, actress Urmie Plein portrayed a black woman in 1863, just after the abolition of slavery, with a crushing monologue: ‘I say sorry anyway’. Linda Nooitmeer, president of the National Institute of Dutch Slavery History and Heritage, said in an interview with King's former press officer Harcourt Klinefelter that 400 years of slavery history has a lasting impact on our society. It is important to have knowledge of history to understand why society was set up in a certain way. 'It affects us all.'
For a moment, there was also a focus on King as a human being, when presenter Aldith Hunkar asked Klinefelter if he had written King's speeches. ‘No!’ was the reply. 'Dr. King wrote his own speeches.' And what King’s most important lesson was? 'Love drives out hate.' And with that, the distinction between the dreaming King and the radical King was not so sharp after all this evening.
About the Martin Luther King Lecture
The Martin Luther King Lecture, delivered annually since 2008, is at VU Amsterdam a moment to reflect on King's life and work and for inspiration for the prevailing zeitgeist. 'We want to keep his legacy and ideas alive for Dutch society,' says Dave Ensberg-Kleijkers, chairman of the Martin Luther King Lecture Foundation. 'To make this world a more prosperous place for everyone.'
This article was edited and expanded on November 28, 2023.