Esteemed Physicist Tells North Central Crowd to Fight Hidden Racism on Martin Luther King Day
A recently retired Fermilab physicist who grew up in the South during the burgeoning civil rights movement challenged those gathered at North Central College’s Martin Luther King Day breakfast Monday to speak out against subtle racism.
“Our state suffered not from the violence of bad people but the silence of good people,” said Herman B. White Jr., now a Naperville resident, paraphrasing a letter written by King in 1963 from his jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, about 130 miles from White’s hometown of Tuskegee, Alabama.
“I say to students: Be critical thinkers. Don’t accept appalling ideas we hear today. Don’t hesitate to debate. Now is the time,” White said in his keynote address.
“I saw white only and black only water fountains. Dr. King stopped all that. We made progress. There’s nowhere you can see that now. It’s a lot more sophisticated now. If you interact with people, it’s a chance they think a different way.”
About 300 people — from students and families to residents and political leaders — participated in the annual event at North Central’s Wentz Science Center.
“It’s for the next generation. Each year we’ve been growing in numbers,” said Samantha Bennett, NCC’s assistant director for multicultural affairs.
The college canceled morning classes and moved the event start time from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. “with the hope our college community could join us,” North Central College President Troy Hammond told the crowd.
The program was punctuated by songs from Voices of Praise Gospel Choir and multiple welcome addresses and prayers from dignitaries before guests gave a standing ovation to White, believed to be the first African American in history to have a scientific equation bearing his name.
“In 1965 not a lot of people had access to education. You could not go to schools in the South,” White said.
“It was a volatile time,” he said. “We saw a lot of violence. There was violence done in the middle of the night. The violence discouraged us to vote. Motivating good people to show up, stand up, speak up was much more important.”
That same sentiment is still critical today, White said. “I know we have serious problems in our country today. Within the last few months we heard about incidents in our schools and community that are disturbing,” White said.
“Perhaps many good people can use (King’s) map as a guide. Some people are concerned about regressing, going back to the times when we had discrimination that was sanctioned. I will continue to speak up if I hear generalizations. That’s what we fought against,” said White, a member of the board of trustees at North Central College.
Mikel Mays, president of Voices of Praise Gospel Choir, added to that thought at the conclusion of the program.
“Don’t let it just be this moment. Pay it forward. If you go to McDonald’s, pay for the person behind you. There are little things we can do,” said Mikel Mays, president of Voices of Praise Gospel Choir, at the conclusion of the program.
Kennedy Taylor, who graduated from North Central College with a bachelor’s degree in secondary education and teaches in McKinley Park in Chicago, said attending the MLK breakfast has become a tradition.
“I’ve been coming to this every year since I was a freshman,” Taylor said. “It’s important to come back. We’re celebrating more than a day of charity. We’re talking about how we can continue his legacy in real life and not just for show. It’s a good way to refresh what you learn about social justice, continue the legacy in my classroom, with my friends, not only equality but anti-racism, actively working against it.”
Celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day is “personal” for U.S. Rep. Bill Foster, D-Naperville.
“My father was a civil rights lawyer who knew Martin Luther King,” Foster said. “No matter where we stand in the cultural divide, strengthening our communities has to be part of the answer. There’s no better way to do that than remembering the legacy” of King.
“We constantly need reminders how close that history is,” said U.S. Rep. Sean Casten, D-Downers Grove. “They taught us in school civil rights was all behind us. This history is still with us.