The theme of the 25th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Observance and Sunrise Celebration was “The Three Evils of Society by Martin Luther King Jr.”
An estimated 200 people attended the 6:30 a.m. celebration on January 21 at ALA’s 2024 LibLearnX conference in Baltimore. This year would have marked King’s 95th birthday.
More than 20 library leaders from across the profession took the stage to read passages from King’s speech at the 1967 National Conference for New Politics in Chicago, an anti–Vietnam War event held one year before the city’s Democratic National Convention. King had delivered his address to more than 3,000 people, noting not just the evils of militarism but also of poverty and racism.
Keynoting the celebration was David Delmar Sentíes, author of What We Build with Power: The Fight for Economic Justice in Tech (Beacon Press, 2023) and founder and former executive director of Resilient Coders, a nonprofit coding boot camp for people of color from low-income backgrounds.
Delmar Sentíes began his talk by reflecting on this presidential election year as one that feels “like a referendum on the soul of our nation.” It is an existential contest, he said, between two complete and mutually conflicting visions of what “this country actually stands for.”
He said King’s National Conference for New Politics speech addresses our “national propensity to make myths that justify, validate, and even celebrate our existing oppressive hierarches of race and class.” One example of such a myth, Delmar Sentíes said, was the notion that white people have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, whereas Black people have been either unwilling or unable.
In school, Delmar Sentíes said, we are all “served with Dr. King Lite, cut with milk and sugar,” a history that fails to reflect on King’s work in support of rent control, striking workers seeking better pay and working conditions, and the Poor People’s Campaign, designed to bring national focus on economic inequality and poverty.
When we ignore these realties of King’s message, he said, what do we have left? “We excuse ourselves from the hard work of introspection. And without introspection, of course there can be no progress.”
If he were still alive, King would have witnessed today’s “white ethnonationalist rhetoric and find that it lands well in America, like rain over the prairie,” Delmar Sentíes said. In response, we must all “show up this year.” Not just by voting, he said, but by making our individual communities better through action.
“We need the doers,” he concluded, “the restless, the relentlessly optimistic, who still believe in an America in which we all belong, and who will not let it be taken from them.”
A call to action
Delivering this year’s call to action was Claudette McLinn, retired librarian and founder and executive director of the Center for the Study of Multicultural Children’s Literature. Now in her mid-70s, McLinn reflected on living through major moments of the civil rights movement.
“Today our world is again in crisis,” she said, “because the issues then are still the issues now.” She cited multiple wars, disinformation, and threats to speech and our right to read.
But there is a way forward, she said: We are called to meet these challenges with love, courage, hope, and faith.
She concluded with thoughts from King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, who said, “Struggle is a never-ending process. Freedom is never really won. You earn it and win it in every generation.”
McLinn said: “Together we can—and will—win.”