Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, 73, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Professor of African American Studies and Sociology at Colby College, met King when she was 4 or 5 when he preached at the Union Baptist Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Kirsten Marjerison photo

I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

Cheryl Townsend Gilkes remembers watching the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. give his “I Have a Dream” speech on television 58 years ago.

She was 15 and sitting with her parents and two younger brothers in their Middleborough, Massachusetts, home that day, Aug. 28, 1963.

“I was in high school and so there was no way my parents would let me go to the March on Washington,” Gilkes recalled Friday. “In 1963 I was getting ready to go into my junior year of high school. I remember watching the speech and just all of us sitting there and not saying a word.”

When King got to the “Free at last…” part, it was a “wow” moment, Gilkes recalled.

“I was just sitting in awe,” she said. “I don’t even remember what my father’s comments were.”

Gilkes, now 73 and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Professor of African American Studies and Sociology at Colby College, met King when she was 4 or 5 when he preached at the Union Baptist Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Gilkes’ father was deacon and director of youth fellowship at the church, where Gilkes has for many years been assistant pastor of special projects. When she was older, she saw King speak at civil rights rallies, and later, she met King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, at various events.

A member of the Colby faculty since 1987, Gilkes is author of two books, as well as articles and essays on religion, race and social change and the life and work of W.E.B. Du Bois, an African American writer, educator, historian, sociologist and civil rights activist.

Gilkes grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and at the end of her freshman year in high school, her family moved to Middleborough. She remembers that while in elementary school, her teachers were not allowed to teach anything not in the curriculum, but some of her favorite teachers would leave literature about King and Black history in the back of the classroom for the children to read. Gilkes was fascinated by and in awe of King, whom she had first read about when she was in the fifth grade.

Gilkes said King, a student of sociology, spent years working on a problem he identified as the disproportionate poverty that African Americans experience — and which he spoke about in the first three paragraphs of his “I Have a Dream” speech.

In 1968, King worked on behalf of garbage workers who were making less than minimum wage.

In Gilkes’ freshman year in high school, the minimum wage went to $1.30 an hour and she said garbage workers were making less than that and trying to support a family and pay a mortgage.

“Dr. King was in the process of working on the Poor People’s Campaign, making poverty across racial lines an issue, recognizing that poverty in a land of plenty was a problem,” Gilkes said. “He was still working on it when he died, and we have to understand that.”

While reading the first three paragraphs of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Gilkes said the problems King identified still exist. The passing of civil and voting rights acts helped to change the country, but the people who opposed civil rights never gave up and “we remain right in that whirlwind,” Gilkes said.

People who are poor and Black are segregated in certain cities and the white poor are scattered in rural areas of society, she said.

“Unfortunately, the reality is that the poor in America are highly segregated from one another, still,” she said.

The rampage on the U.S. Capitol also shows that people are not connected with one another, according to Gilkes.

She reflected on King’s words, then and now.

“Basically, what is happening now is that the Black Lives movement is still dramatizing shameful conditions,” she said.

For many years, Gilkes has attended the Martin Luther King Jr. Day breakfast in Boston, but because of the coronavirus pandemic, she will not be there this year. On Monday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, she will preach at Colby where she plans, fittingly, to cite Coretta Scott King’s favorite sermon — the sermon King’s husband preached at Gilkes Church in Cambridge decades ago.

— Amy Calder, Morning Sentinel

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