MLK Day conversation: History can be rewritten, historian tells Kalamazoo ministers

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.

A few lessons about history were in order when church and community members of Kalamazoo's Northside Ministerial Alliance gathered online Sunday to celebrate the birth and legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

"Reflecting on historical facts allows us to reminisce on where we've been," said Dr. Benjamin C. Wilson, keynote speaker for the Ministerial Alliance's 35th annual celebration of the late civil rights leader. "But it also helps us to understand the present and, at times, it is a painful reminder of how far we have yet to go."

Dr. Benjamin C. Wilson, keynote speaker for the Northside Ministerial Alliance's 35th annual celebration of the late civil rights leader.History was in focus as the Ministerial Alliance recognized King and his fight for the civil rights of African-Americans and others.

"Think about the struggle to vote," suggested Rev. Addis Moore, president of the Ministerial Alliance. "And then think about our last election. The question on the table was voting. Then ask yourself how much has really changed."

The theme of the digital celebration was "Still Marching In Pursuit of Liberty," with Moore saying the event was about remembering and celebrating the life and legacy of Dr. King but also to be "a springboard of inspiration and courage for those of us living in this time, to do our part to let justice ring."

Wilson, a historian and professor emeritus of Africana Studies at Western Michigan University, said American history contains a lot of disinformation, misinformation, and outright lies. And most people read history "not only with their eyes but also with their personal prejudices." So he said, "You should not be flabbergasted because he who controls the present can redefine the past."

Depending on who's telling the story these days, if Goldilocks were named Lakeisha the story told about her would be that she broke into the three bears' home, stole their food, vandalized their furniture, then fled the scene, he said.

"What happens when centuries of lies become accepted truths?" he asked. He suggested that the accomplishments of African-Americans and the travails they suffered are left out.

"For example, George Washington did not build Mount Vernon," he said. "Thomas Jefferson did not build Monticello. Andrew Jackson did not build the Hermitage. They owned enslaved Black people. Who do you think built it?"

The notion of "the good master" during the days of slavery is also a myth, he added, saying, "There ain't no such thing as a good master. How can you own a person and be good?"

And the idea that Africa was or is devoid of history and culture is a misrepresentation of the accomplishments of Blacks. So is the notion that Egypt, a treasure of culture, art and knowledge in northern Africa, is not African.

"When I looked at a map, I saw the country called Kemet before the Greeks came in and renamed it," Wilson said of Egypt. "The capital was Thebes and around Luxor. How can you say Africa was devoid of custom and culture and civilization? The Nile River runs from the south to the north and that river brings up not only commerce but custom, culture, ideas, religions, beliefs. But yet folks say, 'In the Middle East — in Egypt.'"

He said, "He who defines history can also manipulate the minds of those who are gullible enough to read the words and not sit down and try to interpret what's going on."

Wilson said people should know about the many African-Americans who prospered during slavery and just after its abolition. Whenever a high school teacher is doing a lesson on African-American heritage, he or she talks about people who were enslaved, he said. "What about the 450,000 who were freed before 1865 and the 13th Amendment?" he asked. Why are their stories never told? 

He suggested that anyone interested in a better understanding of African-Americans' place in history should read accounts that were researched and written by African-Americans. He recommended some books that he said are not typically carried in many libraries. They include:

- "A Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings and the Madisons," by Elizabeth Dowling Taylor;

-"Prince of Darkness: The Untold Story of Jeremiah G. Hamilton, Wall Street's First Black Millionaire," by Shane White;

- "Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" by Beverly Daniels Tatum; and

- "My First White Friend: Confessions on Race, Love, and Forgiveness," by Patricia Raybon.

For those interested in a better understanding of African-Americans today, he suggested having conversations about race with someone of another race -- carefully and after you've defined some terms and acknowledged that almost everyone brings a fragile ego into such discussions.

"It's a hard discussion to have," Wilson said. And it will be uncomfortable. But it can advance a better understanding of social and cultural issues.

He likened racism to a bitter meal.

"Imagine you're making a gumbo," Wilson said. "The principal ingredient is the roux (a mixture of white wheat flour and cooking fat). Suppose your roux is racism. Then you have some people season it with cultural and fiscal conservatism. Then you've got fanatical one-issue political devotees. Then you've got the Proud Boys, the Michigan Militia draped with the American flag chanting 'USA, USA!' That could make a strange and bitter gumbo."

But he said you don't have to accept it. Using a humorous analogy, he said, "You don't have to request a bottle of Frank's Hot Sauce for that unhealthy concoction."

Regarding racism and King's legacy, Moore said, "There's still so much work to do and we're here as a reminder that the work has not been completed. There's still injustice in our nation. There's still separation. There's still divisiveness. There's still hatred."

A conversation with Wilson was the heart of the Northside Ministerial Alliance's 35th Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Community Celebration. The historian answered questions posed by a discussion panel that included: Rev. Lenzy Bell, vice president of the Ministerial Alliance and pastor of First United Baptist Church in Kalamazoo; Rev. Jeff Porte, lead pastor of Centerpoint Church in Kalamazoo; Rev. Shawn Johnson, executive pastor of Haven Church in Kalamazoo; and Ajamian Gardner, a deacon at Mt. Zion Baptist Church and assistant principal at Kalamazoo Central High School.

The event started with the singing of the Black National Anthem, "Lift Every Voice and Sing," and ended with a rendition of "We Shall Overcome," both performed by Shauntrece Stokes.

John Davis, of Mt. Zion, helped start the event with a recital of King's "I Have a Dream" speech. That speech was delivered by King to more than 250,000 people on Aug. 28, 1963, during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

King, who was shot and killed in Memphis in 1968 at the age of 39,  would have been 92 on Jan. 15. His birthday and his legacy in the civil rights movement is celebrated annually in the United States on the third Monday of January.

The MLK celebration was live-streamed on the YouTube and Facebook sites of Mt. Zion Baptist Church and a recording of it are available on those platforms.

Another local event related to MLK Day was the National Day of Healing celebration by Truth Racial Healing and Transformation of Kalamazoo here

Read more articles by Al Jones.

Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.