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Martin Luther King Jr.’s Message at Oakwood

Today marks the celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the United States. It’s the only federal holiday designated as a day of service. And while the day is now widely celebrated, we can also reflect on how it was a fight to get it recognized at all. As the National Museum of African American History and Culture describes:

When the bill again made it to the house floor in 1983, fifteen years after King’s murder, support was overwhelming. Working together, Coretta Scott King, the Congressional Black Caucus, and Stevie Wonder amassed a six million signature petition in favor of the holiday. The bill easily passed in the House with a vote of 338 to 90. However, when the bill moved onto the Senate, Republican North Carolina Senator, Jesse Helms attempted to dismiss the legislation by submitting documents alleging that the civil rights leader harbored ties to the communist party. Outraged by the personal attack on King’s character, Democratic New York Congressman Daniel Patrick Moynihan threw the more than 300 page binder to the ground and stomped on what he described as a “packet of filth.” After two days of debate, the bill passed in the Senate and President Ronald Regan reluctantly agreed to sign it into law.

Now, as with the civil rights movement as a whole, we get to celebrate the victories of those who came before—and hold the responsibility to not take past sacrifices for granted.

There is also special history for Adventists to reflect on. King spoke at Oakwood College on March 19, 1962. While many attended and heard him speak that day, it wasn’t until 2021 that a copy of the speech was published online by

Prominent Adventist evangelist E. E. Cleveland also got to know King earlier in his career. Cleveland recounted getting into a friendly theological debate with King and Ralph Abernathy while holding meetings in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1954. There were also many Adventists highly involved in the fight for equality, which Samuel London describes in his fascinating book Seventh-day Adventists and the Civil Rights Movement.

Today, we can reflect on the contributions that Adventists have made for civil rights in the United States and appreciate where we collectively have fallen short. “A paradox of our time is that there has been racial progress and yet it is obvious to most that we have a long way to go,” Alexander Bryant, president of the North American Division, wrote several years ago.  He continued: “The dream is that America would rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed that ‘all men are created equal.’ Perhaps the real question is: Has the dream been realized through you and through me?”

Photo by George Conklin (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED).

About the author

Alex Aamodt is an editor-at-large and the Roy Branson Investigative Reporter for Spectrum. He graduated with degrees in English and Spanish from Walla Walla University and lives in Portland, Oregon. You can contact him here. His work is supported by donors who have given to the Bonnie Dwyer Investigative Journalism Fund. More from Alex Aamodt.
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