Broadcast journalist Soledad O'Brien speaks to a sold-out audience at the 25th Annual McCrorey YMCA MLK Holiday Breakfast at the Charlotte Convention Center, Jan. 21, 2019. Photo: Courtesy CapturedbyKevin

With the United States “angry and divided,” broadcast journalist Soledad O’Brien called on those celebrating Martin Luther King Day in Charlotte to follow King’s example by getting involved.

Speaking to a capacity crowd at the 25th Annual McCrorey YMCA MLK Holiday Breakfast, O’Brien, who has produced a number of documentaries about the slain civil rights leader, said there was nothing magical about King, no “Jesus come to Earth.”

“…The research shows you exactly the opposite was true,” she said. “He was a regular man. He was a regular man who decided that he would lead.”

While King undoubtedly was a gifted intellectual with a rare ability to inspire others with soaring oratory, O’Brien said what truly set him apart was his willingness to get involved with the thorny issues of his day – from civil rights to the war in Vietnam.

King revealed in his writings

She spoke of nervously leafing through some of King’s original speeches while observing his many side notes and revision, “where anger would give way to hope, and where optimism would prevail and where dreams would emerge.

“Dr. King had taken the nation on a journey from Birmingham to Selma, trying to wash away the stain of racism, but his writings revealed a regular man who was young and smart, and mostly he was present when the moment called,” she said. “He would stay when most sane people would run.”

Recalling a recent incident in which a high school wrestler in New Jersey was forced by a referee to cut his dreadlocks to avoid being disqualified, O’Brien said she wondered why no adult spoke up in defense of the student.

The power of individuals

Born to a black mother of Cuban heritage and a white father who was Australian, O’Brien said her parents had given birth to six children by the time the Supreme Court finally legalized interracial marriages in 1967.

Despite the racial hostility her parents endured, O’Brien said her mother never lost faith in the power of individuals to affect change.

“My mother used to say, ‘You wait for people to do something, you might be waiting a long time. `You’ve got to jump in, make it happen yourself,'” O’Brien recalled.

She also spoke against those who, decades later, would “sanitize” King and his message to make them both “more palatable.” King in his day was far from a beloved icon, she said.

“Dr. King’s poll numbers were terrible…,” O’Brien said. “He actually was hated. White people hated him. Lots of black people hated him… Even black civil rights leaders felt that he was destroying the movement” with his criticism of the Vietnam war.

King Day should be yearlong commitment

Despite the criticism, King persisted. And like King, O’Brien said, those who desire to build community must likewise commit themselves to action, even in the face of opposition.

“Martin Luther King Day is not a one-day celebration,” she said. “It’s a yearlong commitment that is re-upped year after year after year of living to a set of values, not slogans.

“…It requires moving off very comfortable and pithy slogans and saying, ‘Let’s do the work,’ and that is the legacy of Dr. King — us doing the work. What better legacy can a human being ask for?” she said.

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Founder and publisher of Qcitymetro, Glenn has worked at newspapers including the Los Angeles Times, St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Wall Street Journal and The Charlotte Observer.