'Being silent is being complacent': Suburbanites discuss significance of this year's MLK Day

  • More than 400 people took part in a Black Lives Matter march in June from South Middle School to North School Park in Arlington Heights. Advocates say the ongoing discussions about racism and equity sparked last year lend greater significance to Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year.

      More than 400 people took part in a Black Lives Matter march in June from South Middle School to North School Park in Arlington Heights. Advocates say the ongoing discussions about racism and equity sparked last year lend greater significance to Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year. Rick West | Staff Photographer, 2020

 
 
Updated 1/18/2021 8:58 AM

Every year, Nate Rouse and his 12-year-old son observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day by listening to the civil rights leader's "I Have a Dream" speech and thinking about how to keep that legacy alive.

This year, Rouse said, he hopes the holiday will take on even greater significance for people in light of the nationwide conversations on race and equity sparked by the Black Lives Matter movement in the last year.

 

"One of (King's) most poignant lines was that he hoped his children would be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin," said Rouse, who in August became the first director of equity, race, and cultural diversity initiatives for Barrington Area Unit District 220. "Connecting that vision to the events that have taken place this past year in our country, we have been reminded again in Black, Indigenous and people of color communities that we are not there."

Nate Rouse, director of equity, race and culture diversity initiatives for Barrington Area Unit District 220, listens with his son to the famed "I Have a Dream" speech every year.
  Nate Rouse, director of equity, race and culture diversity initiatives for Barrington Area Unit District 220, listens with his son to the famed "I Have a Dream" speech every year. - John Starks | Staff Photographer

Other suburban residents echoed that, saying MLK Day should spark reflection but also action.

Long before King became an iconic figure, he was among speakers at an event in 1960 at North Central College in Naperville. Then-student Bob Burkhart, who became a pastor, credits that speech as a main driver in his decision to get involved in the fight for civil rights and affordable housing.

The Rev. Robert Burkhart was a student at North Central College in Naperville when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. came to speak in November 1960.
The Rev. Robert Burkhart was a student at North Central College in Naperville when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. came to speak in November 1960. - Courtesy of Robert Burkhart
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MLK Day this year is marked by something new: a national conversation about white supremacy, said Burkhart, 81, who lives in Morton Grove. "That's where I feel my passion is now as a white person," he said. "I think that's the key issue that needs to be addressed today."

Regina Brent, founder of Unity Partnership based in DuPage County, pointed to the "Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution" sermon that King gave four days before he died in 1968. Its message is more relevant than ever, said Brent, of Aurora.

"The government has been sleeping for many, many years when it comes to racism, white supremacy and white privilege," said Regina Brent, founder of Unity Partnership. She is pictured here last year at North Central College in Naperville.
"The government has been sleeping for many, many years when it comes to racism, white supremacy and white privilege," said Regina Brent, founder of Unity Partnership. She is pictured here last year at North Central College in Naperville. - Ryan Rayburn for the Daily Herald

"The government has been sleeping for many, many years when it comes to racism, white supremacy and white privilege," said Brent, who advocated for reparations. This year's MLK Day also is made more somber by gravity of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, she said.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"Once we agree upon how to move on, we have to do it with dignity, pride and self-respect for one another," she said. "We have to also build trust and relationships with one another in order to be able to reach any solutions or resolutions."

MLK Day is the only federal holiday observed as a national day of service, with the motto "a day on, not a day off."

Even though the COVID-19 pandemic has made it more difficult to celebrate MLK Day in person, this year the holiday feels more visible, said Michele Holifield, who co-founded a social justice group at First Presbyterian Church of Arlington Heights.

Michele Holifield co-founded a social justice group at First Presbyterian Church in Arlington Heights.
Michele Holifield co-founded a social justice group at First Presbyterian Church in Arlington Heights. - Courtesy of Michele Holifield

The church is holding its third annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day of service with a drive-up food drive until noon today in the parking lot of the church, 302 N. Dunton Ave.

The hope is that more people will respond to the call to service after the conversation sparked by the Black Lives Matter movement, she said.

Holifield, 56, said she doesn't remember learning much about King while growing up in Arlington Heights, but her children would come home talking about him and asking her questions. "I have learned much more (about him) as an adult," she said.

It's imperative to properly teach young people about King's legacy, but also African-American history and contributions as a whole, said 33-year-old Tim McGowan of Palatine, a speaker at a Black Lives Matter protest last summer in Palatine.

Tim McGowan of Palatine is pictured with his son Timothy, 8, and daughter Desiree, 14, at a Black Lives Matter protest this summer.
Tim McGowan of Palatine is pictured with his son Timothy, 8, and daughter Desiree, 14, at a Black Lives Matter protest this summer. - Courtesy of Tim McGowan

McGowan, who moved from Chicago to Palatine at age 16, said his suburban high school offered a great education but omitted Black studies. He sees much of the same in his teenage daughter's education, he said.

As for MLK Day, "I think right now it's bittersweet, because the fight is still very much alive. It's still going," he said.

"At the same time, I think last year was a turning point for civil rights. A lot more people have gotten involved, a lot of people have spoken. A lot of people who are not even minorities are diving in head first into this battle to figure out how we can fight racism and intolerance in 2020."

It's indeed time for a change, District 220's Rouse said, and people should ask themselves what they are doing to support and encourage that.

"We can no longer be silent," Rouse said, "because being silent is being complacent."

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