During the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday this year — and on the cusp of Inauguration Day — the Stanford University and Palo Alto communities were reminded of a speech the civil rights leader gave at the school 50 years ago.
Standing in Stanford’s Memorial Auditorium in April 1967, King addressed “The Other America.” He talked about how the poor “find themselves perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”
In the decades since King’s death, not much progress has been made on what he called the three evils of the world — racial injustice, poverty and war — said historian and Stanford professor Clayborne Carson, a founding director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at the university.
“We need to think about starting at home, right here in Silicon Valley,” Carson said. “If we really believe that we are on the side of social justice, then we need to make this area a model for the rest of the country.”
Those who live in the liberal-minded Bay Area peg the middle of America as “flyover country” with citizens who voted for president-elect Donald Trump, Carson said.
But Carson said it’s in the Bay Area where the gulf between rich and poor is most apparent: East Palo Alto doesn’t have a high school; Palo Alto residents rejected an affordable housing project for seniors; billionaires get to be humanitarians instead of promoting a fairer distribution of wealth.
“We see this divide starkly here,” Carson said.
Nationwide, black Americans continue to deal with higher instances of poverty, police brutality, incarceration and illness, and none of these issues were priorities in the minds of candidates in the November election, Carson said.
“Rather than moving ahead, we’re still defending the gains of the past,” Carson said. “I think King would be disappointed that the causes that motivated him in his life are still pressing issues 50 years after his death.”
Carson thought it was relevant this year to frame the annual celebration at the King research institute around King’s last book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?”
In the book, published in 1967, a year before his assassination, King acknowledges the gains of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as well as the work left to be done.
Carson, who was tasked in 1985 by Coretta Scott King to edit and publish her late husband’s writings in what is now the King Papers Project, said the best way to remember the man is through his work after 1965.
“He was a leader who brought about major civil rights legislation,” Carson said. “Yes, he was that. But after 1965, he was something else. The intensity of his work increased after ’65 on problems we still address today.”
“His question, ‘Where do we go from here?’ is still unanswered,” Carson said. “Not just unanswered, largely ignored. He challenged us by saying, ‘It’s chaos or community’. We certainly are somewhere in the middle of those alternatives today.”
Palo Alto residents John and Rosemary McGuire attend the annual celebration at the King institute at Stanford every year. They see the place as a beacon of information for future generations, including their grandchildren.
Over the years, the King institute served as a refuge at times for Rosemary McGuire.
“In Palo Alto, I can go for weeks without seeing another black person,” she said. “And I’m not treated kindly everywhere in the community… When you look at me, you need to remember I’m only three generations from slavery.”
Rosemary McGuire, 76, remembers how she and John couldn’t find a place to live in San Francisco decades ago because she is black and he is white.
“Today, it continues,” John McGuire said. “It’s not as bad. It’s not as obvious. People are aware they shouldn’t be too open about it. But there is still carryover of 250 years of slavery in this country.”
Rosemary McGuire said she’s saddened by the election of Trump, whose campaign had the support of white supremacists and whose election rhetoric included alarming rhetoric about minorities, including labeling Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists.
The election results validate her concerns that racism is still an issue, and that gives her a certain measure of assurance, McGuire said. It’s no longer just her imagination that store owners seem to keep a closer eye on her or people avoid her on the sidewalk because they’re scared of her or that she gets pulled over more than others on the Stanford campus.
“Now we know the way people really feel, the way people really think, and we can talk about it in the open,” she said.
Acknowledging that racism is in everyone is the first step. McGuire isn’t above the fray: she’s joined a community group, Racists Anonymous, where members actively discuss racism and their own racist thoughts.
“It’s in you. It’s in me. It’s like the ocean. We all swim in it,” McGuire continued. “Where do we go from here? We talk and tell the truth to each other, one conversation at a time.”
Residents from across the Bay Area came to Palo Alto on Monday to do just that: Talk to each other and celebrate each other’s diversity, all while honoring King.
It’s time for people to get over their differences, said Denise Williams, 59, of Redwood City.
“We all have red blood in us,” Williams said. “We all put our clothes on the same way. If we can get over our little differences, it doesn’t matter who’s in the White House.”
The Mitchell Park Community Center event was organized by the city of Palo Alto and the nonprofit organization Youth Community Service.
Brandon Briones, 21, of Santa Clara, said the presidential election highlighted how much hate there is in the world and how much more has to be done to address inequality.
“I think it’s important to show support and remember the people who came before us,” said Briones, gesturing toward an exhibit of dozens of community activists, including U.S. Rep. John Lewis, Cesar Chavez and Rosa Parks. “What they fought for advanced the rights of every group.”
Racquel Payton, 28, a San Jose preschool teacher, couldn’t make it to the parade in San Francisco, so she searched online for ways to commemorate the day and found the Palo Alto event.
She says King’s message of justice, love and peace during the civil rights movement is still relevant and finds hope in his words: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Olivia Carlstrom, a second-grade student at Addison Elementary School, recalled learning about King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in class and a lesson about how one’s skin color shouldn’t matter.
Her teacher taught a lesson about how King was told one day he could no longer play with his friends, who were white.
“It was sad,” Carlstrom said. “I wouldn’t like to lose my friends.”
East Palo Alto resident Elizabeth Jackson, 68, remembers all too well a time when she couldn’t play with white children. She grew up in Alabama during the Jim Crow era.
Jackson’s grandmother was a housekeeper for a white family and Jackson would play with the family’s little girl at home, but they went to different schools and took different buses to get there.
Jackson, a Rotary Club member, said she hopes youths will learn from King’s generation, who bettered the community in leaps and bounds. Locally, for instance, black women formed Mothers for Equal Education in 1965 to argue for desegregation of schools in the Sequoia Union High School District.
“We’re standing on their shoulders right now,” Jackson said. “Ain’t everything done. We got a lot we still need to fight for.”