Fri. Jan 28th, 2022

To commemorate the 80th birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., West Chester University hosted a panel of authors in Philips Autograph Library on Jan. 15th to provide unique insight into the life of an ordinary man with extraordinary abilities.The panel began with a speech orated by Dr. Harvard Sitkoff. In addition to teaching history at the University of New Hampshire, Sitkoff is a well-known authority on the history civil rights. He is the author of, “King: The Pilgrimage to the Mountaintop” which chronicles the major events of King’s life from birth to his assassination on April 4, 1968.

Sitkoff focused his speech on expressing how Dr. King was merely an every-day man who used his unique talents to inspire a generation into social reform.

Sitkoff believed that “ordinary people can bring about social change.” He explained that King exemplified this belief as he was a man who, “suffered from the flaws of ordinary men.” The fact that King was the every-day man made his accomplishments and global impact even more significant. “Dr. King was the right man, with the right talents, at the right time,” Sitkoff said.

Sitkoff continued his speech by describing King’s early life. He explained that King “learned the meaning of racism early in life,” due to the fact that on Jan. 15 1929, King was brought into a world in which, “a racially segregated society seemed natural order.” Despite having roadblocks in the form of racism obstructing his path, King earned a high level of education from Morehouse College, Boston University, and Crozer Theological Seminary (graduating at the top of his class), located in Chester, Pa.

Next, Sitkoff described King’s “struggle for human dignity.” After completing his education, King returned to the South to the town of Montgomery, Alabama in order to “put his learning into practice.”

King’s religious faith led him to employ a philosophy of non-violent civil disobedience. Sitkoff described these tactics as “neither a sign of passiveness or timidity.” To justify his stance, Sitkoff explained that, “the old eye for an eye philosophy only leaves everyone blind.” King knew that changing a social climate does not occur overnight and sought to attain small compromises over time, according to Sitkoff.

In concluding his speech, Sitkoff stated that King “made history and was made by history.” King was able to inspire people of all races who were suffering from oppression and poverty. Sitkoff sought to celebrate a man who took enormous risks in the face of danger. Sitkoff cemented King’s global impact by stating “No social movement in the United States accomplished so much in less than a decade.”

Next to address the audience was Dr. Troy Jackson, the Senior Pastor of University Christian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. Jackson is the author of “Becoming King: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Making of a National Leader.” His book portrays the social landscape of Montgomery, Ala. and King’s role in inciting change.

As in his book, Jackson described the social scene in Montgomery. This town was the epitome of racial segregation and tension. Jackson described instances in which blacks were blatantly mistreated without consequence. To illustrate this, Jackson told of a black woman arrested for public intoxication that was raped by the officers who detained her. The chief of police pushed for prosecution of the officers, but the local government chose to ignore the situation.

Jackson characterized Montgomery as the epicenter for racial change in the South. This is where King began his movement for social change after his schooling. Jackson believed King’s return to this town was his most courageous decision and risk. “King was going into the belly of the beast,” Jackson said.

Despite the heated racial tension, King “found people already tilling the soil for racial change,” according to Jackson.

Jackson believed it was the common people who changed and motivated King. He cited the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which was sparked by Rosa Parks’ famous stance against segregation on public buses. Jackson believed that it was exactly these people, those on the buses and day laborers, who drove King to put his oratory talents and charisma to use.

In his speech, Jackson showed that King was the voice of the hundreds and thousands of people being oppressed who desired change. Jackson believed that this is where “King became King.”

After the speeches concluded, a discussion between the two speakers and Dr. Jonathan Rieder began. Rieder is a professor of sociology at Barnard College of Columbia University, as well as the author of “The Word of the Lord is Upon Me: The Religious Performance of Martin Luther King Jr.”

The discussion sought to describe the uniqueness of Martin Luther King. Jackson described King as one of the most significant figures in the history of the United States, and equated him to such figures as Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson. Jackson also believed that the pressure King faced brought out the best of him. Religious beliefs also played a major role in King’s tenacity, according to Jackson. Sitkoff added that King’s perseverance through fear, despite violence against him, was key to his success. Rieder contributed that King’s versatility with the roles he played added to his character. Rieder explained that King was a healer who provided hope for his parishioners. He was a motivator who lifted fear from the masses. Finally, he was a persuader who joined a nation together to incite change.

The three panelists ended by discussing the best way to remember a man with such an impact. The result of this debate was that King must be remembered as he is relevant to society today.

King brought about change through his words and leadership. He sought to bring a nation together to forget differences of skin color, opinion, or social class. King’s lesson and message are applicable to all time periods, and they will be seen around the world as the United States’ first president of color will be brought into office on Tuesday.

Jordan Demain is a fourth-year student majoring in English with a minor in journalism. He can be reached at

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