Column #199. First published in the St. Cloud Times in print and online, February 4, 2024
“It’s 30 years ahead of what America’s going to look like.”
Along with 780 other residents of this region, I heard these words in River’s Edge Convention Center on Jan. 15 at the 12th annual MLK Community Celebration, sponsored by the City of St. Cloud and St. Cloud State University.
The keynote speaker, investigative journalist, 2022 Pulitzer finalist, and Minnesota native Lee Hawkins, when he saw the people who were all there because they wanted to be there, together — diverse racially, ethnically, generationally — made the claim: What you are now is where America will be in three decades. He meant it as hopeful and a compliment.
But there are people around the country and here who recoil from our being “what America will look like.” They take cues from former president and presumptive nominee Donald Trump, who has said, repeatedly, that immigrants are "poisoning the blood of our country.” When Trump and his followers say “our country,” they mean a nation in which diversity, equity, and inclusion — on full display that morning at River’s Edge — are swear words, threats to the white supremacy that they consider natural, even God-given. There is no explaining away the echo in Trump’s rhetoric of these words from Chapter 11, “Nation and Race,” of Mein Kampf: “All great cultures of the past perished only because the originally creative race died out from blood poisoning.”
This year’s political choices will be characterized in a hundred ways. For me, the most compelling is this: Do I vote for a region, a state, a nation that moves toward looking more and more like the MLK Community Celebration? Or do I vote for a region, a state, a nation that marshals its energies and powers to forestall any further looking like that gathering, and even to dismantle what has already been done to make it so? Such forestalling efforts aren’t new. Hawkins reminded us that the FBI labeled Martin Luther King Jr. “the most dangerous Negro in America.”
We have been becoming like that crowd in River’s Edge since the beginning. If visitors were to ask me what best exemplifies this area, I would take them to the St. Cloud Great River Regional Library plaza to see our cultural and spiritual genome — the display of flags of the nearly one hundred countries from which people have come to live here, beginning with the Dakota and Anishinaabe. Immigrants have not “poisoned the blood of our country.” They are the blood of our country — our country which is not just white people like me.
Yes, the future I want for my children and grandchildren and countless generations of descendants is what I saw on Jan. 15. And I heard something else at the event that makes me optimistic as well as hopeful.
Fifty-four young people, from kindergarten to college, were honored as winners of the 2024 Dexter R. Stanton MLK Art and Essay Contest, named for the co-founder of the MLK celebration. Sarah Drake of herARTS in Action, who presented the awards, recalls that through most of his life Stanton said, “Kids are the future.” Shortly before his death in 2021, however, she heard him say, “They are our now!”
The winners’ works, on display, express a wide range of creative responses to Dr. King’s belief that “the time is always right to do right.”
These young people know, in both their heads and their hearts, what community means to them and requires of them.
- Seventeen third-graders from Marlene Miller’s Lincoln Elementary class drew a heart filled with approximately 250 hands: “The colored hands represent us. Our student team for this artwork are many different ethnic backgrounds. We can work together to make a difference, just like we worked together to make this art.”
- Zaynab S., a K-4th grade winner: “I write this for everybody. I love people. I just love people. You are worth it.”
- Dalten B., a 5th-8th grade winner: “Every difference is a unique blessing.”
The college-level winner, India Ratha, first-year student at Carleton, St. Cloud Tech 2023 valedictorian, writes about overcoming anxiety as she organized a student jazz ensemble to visit nursing homes — for which she received one of five MIT AgeLab national OMEGA scholarships for intergenerational efforts. She cites King: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that,” and concludes: “Now I know that bringing MLK’s dream closer to reality means chasing that light and spreading love, even when it seems impossible. And now that I’ve seen the impact that I can make through those actions, I will never stop doing what is right, no matter what stands in my way.”
All the Stanton Contest winners are harbingers of what America will look like in thirty years – and exemplars of what it already is.