Acclaimed author Haygood sees a future for MLK’s vision

In this time of apparent political and societal discord in America, it might seem as if the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. have been forgotten. Wil Haygood begs to differ.

Wil Haygood

Haygood, an acclaimed author, journalist and cultural historian, believes Dr. King’s legacy lives on. The Miami (Ohio) University professor said as much during a presentation, titled “The Enduring Vision of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” given Jan. 22 at Purdue’s Loeb Playhouse.

The presentation was coordinated by the Purdue Black Cultural Center, which is marking its 50th anniversary this year, as the centerpiece of the BCC’s annual celebration of Dr. King’s life and legacy. The event also was part of the Giant Leaps Series of lectures, which are among many campus happenings designed to celebrate Purdue’s 150th anniversary.

Haygood frequently invoked Dr. King’s words during the 90-minute presentation, which was at times humorous, moving and critical of the current state of the U.S. government. After opening with some jokes about his youth and subsequent rise to fame as an author, he quickly got serious about the federal government’s shutdown.

“Where this country is now would not make Dr. King happy,” said Haygood, once the national and foreign correspondent for the Washington Post. “A democracy is fragile. As a foreign correspondent, I’ve seen democracies fall right before my eyes. I’m old enough to have reported from behind the Berlin Wall. There is no wall big enough, no wall tall enough, to stop people from dreaming.”

Stories of Hope

Haygood went on to share stories about his youth in Ohio, his time as a journalist and the encounters he had with civil rights-movement

insiders and prominent African-Americans while he researched for books on those subjects. Haygood focused on two stories as examples of hope for Dr. King’s enduring legacy, both of which came from the time he spent covering Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign.

The first story was that of two white teenagers from the South, whom he met on the campaign trail. They were fully supportive of Obama’s quest to become the country’s first African-American president despite the fact that they felt ostracized within their communities.

“They were actually living Martin Luther King’s dream. Not judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” Haygood said. “Martin Luther King lived in a violent time but King always saw beauty.”

Haygood’s second story was the one that made him famous. It’s the story of longtime White House butler Eugene Allen, who worked for eight presidents and later met a newly elected Obama face to face. Allen had only come to Obama’s attention after Haygood wrote a story about Allen for the Washington Post during the campaign.

That story eventually turned into a book and then an acclaimed 2013 movie, “The Butler,” about Allen’s remarkable life. A child of a segregated South, Allen worked at the White House before, during and after the civil rights movement. He even met Dr. King in person.

Haygood recalled Allen’s reaction to Obama’s election, and their meeting: “He said, ‘When I was in the White House, you couldn’t even dream that you could dream about this happening,’ He said ‘dream’ twice!”

America Will Endure

Haygood also saw hope for the future in the activism of today’s youth and the diversity of the newly elected Congress. He closed the presentation with words from the Bible that were frequently quoted by Dr. King.

Wil Haygood speaking

“America will endure. We’ll hold on. We have our young people to do the marching,” he said. “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.”

Alia Kabba, 19, is a sophomore at Purdue from Plainfield, Illinois who is majoring in automation and systems integration engineering technology. One of several audience members who spoke to Haygood during a question-and-answer session, Kabba found his presentation deeply inspirational.

“Before coming, I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t expect to be moved so much,” Kabba said. “Listening to his stories and the stories about other peoples’ lives was great. Just the lessons he learned and the lessons I could take away from it, I learned a lot.”

Dreamer Award Winners

Prior to Haygood’s presentation, the BCC announced the 2019 Dreamer Award Winners. The Dreamer Award is presented annually to an individual or organization within the Purdue community whose contributions embody Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of service to others and furthers the University’s commitment to diversity and inclusion.

This year’s winners were Roy L. Hamilton, assistant vice chancellor for educational opportunities programs at Purdue Northwest, and Antonia Munguia, director of recruitment, retention and diversity at Purdue Polytechnic Institute.

Renee Thomas, director of the BCC, led the team that organized the event. Beginning with Haygood’s presentation, she thought the evening was a success.

“I thought it was exceptional, certainly inspirational,” she said. “Wil Haygood gave us all a sense of hope. I thought he was a phenomenal storyteller and he shared moving stories about African-Americans, which are often lost or unknown to the American public. He weaved his story into the idea: Let’s all be dreamers like Dr. King and see his dreams come to reality.”

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