Members of the Iowa Black Democratic Caucus, at least two legislators and about 15 members of the public celebrated the legacy of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. on Sunday during a panel discussion at the Machinist Hall in Des Moines.
The panel included caucus leaders Al Womble, president, and Tiara Mays, vice president and Sen. Izaah Knox (D-Des Moines) and Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad (D-Des Moines). The federal King holiday was observed on Jan. 16.
The panel discussed a variety of topics, including King’s legacy, the Black community and the changes needed in the Democratic party.
Womble discussed King’s Poor People’s Campaign and the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike. He said some of King’s staffers didn’t want him to go.
“Dr. King looked at his staff and said, ‘I have to go,'” Womble said. “His decision to go was led by Isaiah: 6:8, where in the Bible it says: ‘And the Lord called out: Whom shall I send? Who will go for us? And I called out: Here am I, Lord. Send me.'”
“For decades, Dr. King was reduced to a phase: ‘I have a Dream,'” Abdul-Samad said.
King is misunderstood by many, he said.
“Dr. King didn’t try to play the game, Dr. King changed the game,” said Abdul-Samad. “We try to play the game.”
He added: ‘When Dr. King, with Rosa Parks, did the back of the bus, they weren’t trying to ride just to change the bus systems. They were riding to change the game in the nation and in the world,” he said.
To change the game, Abdul-Samad said people have to quit working in silos and “quit believing what people define our struggle to be.”
“We always hear: ‘Black people don’t work together,'” he said. “And the sad part about it . . . we repeat that lie.”
Knox, who is the second Black senator in Iowa history, discussed his work in the community and recent experience at the Capitol. He said there are “dog whistles” at the Capitol and in the community. He also recalled when his high school shop teacher turned him “off of the trades” when he was told: ‘Get your cotton-picking hands off that stuff until I tell you it’s OK to use it.'” When he advocated for himself with the principal, there were no repercussions for the teacher, he said.
Mays, who ran for Johnston School board and the Iowa House of Representatives, said the Democratic party “missed a lot of marks” in the midterm elections.
“We have to actually be boots on the ground,” she said. “You’re going to have to go to uncomfortable spaces and places you’re not familiar with in order for us to win.”