During an event celebrating the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., keynote speaker OJ Oleka addressed the importance of unity and moving forward and continuing the fight for racial justice and equality in America.
The event, which was also live-streamed and can be viewed here, was hosted by Kentucky Wesleyan College. Oleka is the president of the Association of Independent Kentucky Colleges and Universities, which advocates for higher education policies at the state and federal level that will lead to increased affordability and access to Kentucky’s independent colleges.
Oleka said he took a lot of pride in King because he was unafraid to speak the truth and unyielding in his beliefs. He compared King to President Abraham Lincoln, saying though the two individuals fought for different things, they approached their goals the same way.
“While (Lincoln) couldn’t claim to take the path of nonviolence — and I’m glad he didn’t — he also wasn’t afraid to speak the truth,” Oleka said. “He was also unyielding in his belief in justice.”
Passionate about his goal to end generational poverty, Oleka said there was a tendency for Americans to put up with the United States’ many institutional flaws because they loved their country.
“But if we start believing our institutions are unwilling or unequipped to contain the mob, whether from the right or left wing, we’ll lose faith in our government,” he said. “And that will lead to violence.”
King penned in a 1963 letter that he could not sit idly by because, as Oleka read, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
As Oleka noted, King was speaking about the instances of discrimination that plagued the country prior to the Civil Rights movement. “Mob rule,” as Oleka called it, was a threat to every American, whether it affected them directly or indirectly, because it would always lead to violence.
King and Lincoln said the same thing in different ways, he added. They were making a plea with their country to do better.
“These two men are moving forward in a changing world. They both saw the role that leaders have to play,” Oleka said. “Both men were right that our institutions must be preserved — the belief that our institutions can and should work equally for every person.”
Institutions, Oleka continued — whether governmental, economical, educational or otherwise — operated the same way as relationships. In order to have a healthy institution, it must be built on communication, transparency, and opportunity.
“We can compare this to all human relationships that exist,” he said. “When I buy a product, I must trust the company is an honest one. They have to be transparent in this process. I must have the opportunity to purchase this product, and if I don’t, I don’t like it. This trust defines that institution, that exchange.”
Oleka said 2020 represented a “catastrophic failure” for America’s institutions, calling it a “destructive relationship.” He said the COVID-19 pandemic, the election, the economic crisis, the racial tensions, and the subsequent mental health crisis that followed proved that Americans had lost faith in their institutions along the way.
“Like King, we must stitch together our racial and cultural communities. We must move forward,” he said. “King said only light can drive out darkness. Only together can we move forward in a changing world. Only united can we stand. Divided, we will fall.”