by Jess Hoogendoorn
Jesse Epps was born and bred in a “foreign country”: Mississippi. He spoke of his home state in such a way because in the land of equality, Mississippi was full of racism and therefore did not seem to be part of the same country.
Epps was the keynote speaker for Black History Month on Tuesday night in the Bart Luedeke Center Theater. Epps worked beside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other prominent figures to fight for the rights of all American citizens.
He explained that the foundation of King’s work was in compliance with what the founding fathers had written in the Constitution.
People could not say King was crazy because then they would be saying Thomas Jefferson and other historical figures were crazy. King was working off of their principles and foundations of equality, Epps said.
“They could not condemn him for that,” he said. “They had to find other ways.”
Epps said King reminded Americans that they were sinners because they were professing what they were not: promoters of equality.
Epps spoke of the election of President Barack Obama not as the completion of King’s dream, but as the start.
“It is really not the finish but the beginning,” Epps said. “It is up to us to hold up [Obama’s] hands.”
He said everyone must continue to fight against the injustices that have plagued America.
“America, you don’t have to do anything new,” Epps said. “Just live up to what you put on paper.”
Epps told a story of how he almost became a racist. As a child, he recalled a white man who held a prominent political position in town. When this man walked down the sidewalk with his family, every black person had to step off of the sidewalk and into the street.
One day, a black man did not move aside. The white man turned around and went home, got a gun, and shot the black man. He proceeded to get into his car and drag the black man down in the street.
“[The black man] was buried and nothing ever happened,” Epps said.
After this incident, Epps said he felt as though he wanted to kill every white man he came across. Later he realized that if he fell victim to racism, then he would be no better than the white man who sparked his hatred. Therefore, Epps decided to promote equality and tolerance.
“God is a god of equality,” Epps said. “He created but one race, the human race.”
Epps also spoke of a sanitation workers’ strike in Mississippi that he became a part of. Workers went on strike after two black men were crushed in a garbage truck.
The men were working when it began to rain. They were in a high-class white neighborhood, so there was no place for the black men to seek shelter. They could not go into the cab of the truck because a white man was the driver. They climbed into the back to get out of the rain and somehow the compactor mechanism was engaged and both were killed.
Epps also emphasized the importance of not forgetting the past.
“Unless we remember from whence we have come and the mistakes we have made, we are destined to repeat them,” he said.
In his final remarks, Epps challenged the citizens of America, especially young people, to continue King’s dream.
“You’re stuck with making America what she ought to be,” he said.