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MLK Day prompts reflection in St. Louis on how the powerful use race to divide and weaken

Benjamin Jealous speaks during the 2024 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday Observance at Touhill Performing Arts Center.
Eric Lee
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Benjamin Jealous, former NAACP president and current executive director of the Sierra Club, speaks during the Martin Luther King Jr. Day observance at Touhill Performing Arts Center on Monday at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.

More than a half-century after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. died, civil rights leaders continue to reflect on the interwoven histories of racism, money and power.

Former NAACP President Benjamin Jealous gave a history lesson, of sorts, on Monday at the University of Missouri-St. Louis' Touhill Performing Arts Center about the way colonial powers used race and racism to extract wealth from overseas territories.

“It doesn’t matter which former colony you go to: India, places in the Middle East, Iran and America,” he said. “The strategy was always the same: divide and conquer.”

Jealous, now the executive director of the Sierra Club, was the keynote speaker at an event on the federal holiday honoring King and his legacy. King was "a man who believed in inclusive prosperity and also understood the very purpose of racism, the very creation of the word ‘race’ as we know it was to prevent that,” Jealous said.

The strategy of division took different forms in the centuries following but still fundamentally worked to ensure those in power retained it, Jealous said. He highlighted the systematic erasure of Black history from the broader history of the United States, including how people of color participated in the Boston Massacre.

“Everybody who gets divided, gets conquered. Everybody who gets divided, gets hurt,” Jealous said. “The whole purpose of racism from the beginning was to divide poor Blacks and poor whites [so they could not] unite and create inclusive prosperity.”

Benjamin Jealous, executive director of the Sierra Club and former president of the NAACP, speaks during the Martin Luther King Jr. Day observance Monday at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
Eric Lee
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Benjamin Jealous, executive director of the Sierra Club and former president of the NAACP, speaks during the Martin Luther King Jr. Day observance at the Touhill Performing Arts Center on Monday.

Jealous argued that these strategies of erasure and division continue to sow racial conflict today. He called for vigilance and action against such tactics, such as dismantling the notion that only Black and brown people face poverty in America when many white people do, too.

“Understand that there is no day like today to start acting with more courage,” he said. “This country is fragile, it’s only ever been a small number of us who have led the fight to keep the American Dream alive.”

Jealous’ message resonated in the auditorium as audience members clapped and murmured in agreement throughout the address. Afterward, St. Louis County resident Joyce Hawkins said she wished the keynote had been televised so that more parts of the country would hear its message.

Members of the Zeta Sigma chapter of Sigma Gamma Rho wear pins of Martin Luther King Jr. during the event at UMSL.
Eric Lee
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Members of the Zeta Sigma chapter of Sigma Gamma Rho wear pins of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during the event at the University of Missouri-St. Louis on Monday. The first Martin Luther King Jr. Day observance at UMSL was in 1988.

“The history of this country has never been taught truthfully,” said Hawkins. “And now they’re trying to ban books so you don’t know the little bit that’s out there? It’s horrible.”

For Hawkins, the event spoke to her experience growing up during the Civil Rights Movement in Arkansas, where she attended segregated schools.

“I lived it,” she said. “I don’t have to talk about it. To see what we’re coming through now trying to keep people from having a right to vote in any way that they can, that is destroying our democracy.”

Florissant resident Jackie Hill Crawford said she left with a renewed sense of urgency toward King’s goal of unity.

She said Jealous “spoke to the real issue of action — that we should stand together to perform actions that reach out to all communities.”

Eric Schmid covers business and economic development for St. Louis Public Radio.