(Junction City Native and Academy-Award Winner)
Keynote Speech, Martin Luther King Day Celebration
Opera House, Junction City, Kansas, January 16, 2023
Junction City! [Applause] Junction City, Kansas. Junction City, Kansas. Yes, indeed. How y’all
doing? I love my hometown. Born and raised…740 W. 10 th …Across the street from 2 nd Baptist Church. And that’s where I had as my school teacher, as my Sunday School teacher, Ms. Ruby Stevens. Her two sons are here--hello to Pev, Ted—thank you for your mother, thank you for y’all’s friendship—Junction City was such a great place to grow up. You know, Melanie—who introduced me—we all went to school together.
When I heard folks talk about—wasn’t that young man outrageously great? [Referring to Jerel D. McGeachy, Jr., a youthful orator who spoke previously] [Applause]—You know he’s going to be standing here in a couple of years— Yeah, so—when I think back on growing up in Junction, I think about Dr. King--you know I write movies and make movies--and I wrote recently a screen play about Dr. King, about him growing up, about his childhood. It’s called “Becoming Martin.” I went to Lincoln School here in town, and I was in the Fourth Grade when Martin Luther King was assassinated. I was always the current events kid—my mother—we had to watch news every day. We watched it in the morning, we watched it--Walter Cronkite, baby—So I was always the kid raising my hand. “Yes, Kevin?” “There was a hurricane in Florida! Hurricane Camille.” “Okay, Kevin, thank you. Thank you very much.” I was that dude, right? So I’m playing with my army men and Mr. Hammond—Roger Hammond, C.V.’s relation--Mr. Hammond was a great friend of my parents—He lived down the street on 10 th Street—Mr. Hammond was a real intellectual. He’d come down to our house and spend time with my parents, and I would hear him talk. And this is 1968. And I’m in Fourth Grade, and I’m hearing them talk about civil rights, I’m hearing them talk about the war in Vietnam, I’m hearing them talk about all that stuff. Y’all remember—back
in those days, a kid just had to listen. You couldn’t talk. If you’d talk, they’d say, “Okay, we’re
going to give you one sentence.” So I’m listening, and it was such a great time, growing up like that. Because hearing them talk, they talked a lot about Ninth Street (and we’ll talk about that in a little bit too). And hearing those conversations, I didn’t really know who Martin Luther King was. So the next day I’m playing with my army men, Mr. Hammond is there, my father is there, my big brother—and I’m on the floor, playing, and suddenly there’s this news flash on the TV: Martin Luther King has been assassinated in Memphis. My mother jumped up, started screaming, hollering, she was totally out of control. She went on the front porch, Mr. Hammond tried to calm her down, my father tried to calm her down, she was weeping, crying, breaking down--I turned to my big brother and said, “Who’s Martin Luther King?”
So I go to school next day. Fourth Grade, Lincoln School. [Raising hand to be called on] “Yes, Kevin?” “Martin Luther King was assassinated.” “Uh—we won’t talk about that today.”
Hold up, hold up, hold up—Usually when I’d say this, we’d talk about it. We’re not going to talk about it? This was a news bulletin, a news bulletin. The only time I’d seen that before was in kindergarten and I came home and there was a news bulletin that JFK had been assassinated.
That’s the only other time I’d seen a news bulletin like that. So I knew it was a big deal, knew it was a big, big, big deal. What happens when you tell a kid that’s ten years old, we won’t be
talking about something? That’s all they want to talk about. That’s what happened to me. So
that’s how I discovered who Martin Luther King was.
I’m actually writing a TV show right now, about Ebony magazine. I discovered Ebony magazine at that time. Ebony had the news on the cover, obviously. I took it to school. I took it to my teacher. I showed her this Ebony magazine. She said, “Everyone in this magazine--is colored!”
And I said, “Yeah! Everyone is colored! Isn’t that great?” And she said, “Even the
advertisements, it’s just all Black people!” I said, “Yes!!”
And that’s what it was like at that time. You know, I remember when the first Black person was hired at Dillons. And we thought that was such a huge achievement. You know when I was a kid, we didn’t have a car growing up, and I walked with my mother to pay bills. And we walked from 10 th St. up here downtown, and we would pay the water bill at the Municipal Building, and we would pay the gas and light bills, the KPL bill, down here, and we would pay the telephone company bill, we’d pay all these bills, and there were no Black people working in any of those offices. It was like…wow. Junction City is the second largest Black population city percentage wise in the state. Yet there were no Black people in any of these jobs. There was one Black policeman, and there were no Black firefighters.
So I had a job. On the CETA program. You might remember the CETA program? My man
James--Where’s James at? Give my friend James Russell a hand. [Applause] James and I--we
worked at St. Mary’s Cemetery. We cut the grass, we straightened every tombstone in the
cemetery so it stood correct, we put cement around it—it took us several years to do this. Our boss was Joe McCormick, and we had a great time working, it was on the CETA program. The CETA program was a government program that gave poor kids summer jobs. With that money we earned on those jobs we bought school clothes, I saved up and got my first car, such a great program.
There was trouble at the high school.
And you know Junction City is such a great, diverse place. The street I grew up on, 10 th St.,
across the street was a white family. Next to them, a Black and Japanese family. Next door to
them, a Black and Filipino family. Next door to them, a Black family. Next door to them, a
white family. Next door to them, a Black and Italian family. Next door to them, a Black and
Korean family. Next door to them, a Black and Italian family. Next door to them, a Black and
German family. Next to them, a white and Japanese family.
That’s one block in a small town in Kansas! People I went to school with in New York, they
would say, “Hey, so--this must be all new to you, this diversity of New York.” I’d say, “Are you
kidding me? Are you kidding me? One block of my hometown puts all of this to shame!”
But the problem was, at that time, Junction City did not celebrate that diversity! It was
ashamed of it. Junction City always had this bad reputation. Of course, part of it was from
Ninth Street. But the other part of it was because it was so diverse. So many interracial
couples. On the block I had grown up on was the Buffalo Soldiers. They had gone all over the world, fighting wars and bringing what they called “war brides” home with them. And that’s why our block was so, so, so integrated. It was such an amazing place. And when I look at that now, and I put it in the context of today: Junction City is the example of the multiracial democracy that America wants to be. [Applause]
We are—we created President Obama. We created him. That came out of what Junction City
is. And that is also why they tried to overthrow the United States, on January 6. Because that
part of Dr. King’s dream—the dream of a multiracial democracy—that is a threat to a whole lot of folks in this country. Still today! Still today. [Applause]
And so we as Junction Citians—we need to embrace who we are. We need to celebrate who
we are. We need to tell the world who we are!
Part of that was “Ninth Street.”
That thing I described, about how we didn’t have folks working downtown, we didn’t
have—one of my jobs with the CETA program, I got a job cleaning up at the Municipal Building, and my boss was a firefighter. And on that job, he said, let me bring you upstairs to the firestation, where we work, where we live. We went upstairs. He said, “You’re the first Black person to come up here.” This was when I was 17 years old. And he said, “You’re the first Black person we let up here.” There were no Black firefighters, there had never been a Black firefighter in the history of the city. So when I got out of college, and I came back home, still no Black firefighters. This is 1982. So I said to myself, “I think it’s time to get into a little bit of ‘good trouble.’ I think it’s time that I let people know how I feel about this.” And we let people know, same way today. So I got my friends together, and we started protesting. And where is Mike Johnson? That protest led to the hiring of that man right there. [Mike Johnson from the back of the auditorium: “40 years and retirement!”] Thank you, brother! Thank you!
Because—because that’s Junction City. And one of the reasons that it took so long is
because—one of the problems Junction City has is that people like me, who—I learned recently they did my genealogy—the Topeka Library did my genealogy. I didn’t know much about my family. So when I did my genealogy I learned that I had a great, great, great uncle—his name was Oscar Hoskins—and he fought in the Civil War. They had this thing in the Civil War, where you could take a guy’s place. A guy could give you, like $500 and you could take his place, in the draft. You could fight for him, in his stead. Oscar took the money, went and fought in the Civil War. And he got in some ‘good trouble’ down there in—it was somewhere around Mississippi and Georgia. He was a preacher. (You can’t tell that to friends of my family.) He got into some good trouble, with the Klan. KKK came after him. And they ran him out of Georgia. He came to Junction City. This was about 1880. So that was how my family came to Junction City. And I think he chose Junction City because it was even at that time it was a multiracial democracy.
There was a place called Caldwell Drug Store, on Washington Street. Anyone remember that?
And I remember one time I was in there with my father. My father was an older man. My
father was born in 1898. He was 60 when I was born. So I grew up around older people, Mr.
Hammond, I listened to older folks--I learned so much from listening to these older folks,
people, I learned so much history, listening to these folks. I remember I was in there with my
father one day. Mr. Caldwell owned the drugstore. They called my father “Sank.” He said,
“Hey, Sank, how you doin’?” And they were talking. And these places downtown were like
God places to me. Only God owned these places. And afterwards, I said, “So you know him?”
He said, “Yeah. We went to school together.”
My father only went to the Sixth Grade. My mother went to the Tenth Grade. And they didn’t
stop going to school because they just dropped out. They dropped because they had to go to work. And then when they did my genealogy I learned that Oscar Hoskins was the janitor at the Courthouse here in town. And then I started looking at the census records, and there’s the Hammonds, and there’s my parents, and there’s all these people in the census records at the turn of the century, and Tenth Street that I’d grown up with, they’d been there for years and years and years.
So why—I’ve always wondered, like--why do I care so much about Junction City? It’s because, my people were here at the beginning of Junction City! [Applause] Yeah!!
So when I wrote this screen play about young Martin Luther King, it reminded me so much of
the relationship I had with my friend, Father Coady.
Let me tell you a little bit about young Martin King. Young Martin Luther King. A child of a
minister. But he was—he was just a kid. Very smart kid, smart kid. And they called him
“M.L.” His name actually was Michael Luther King. His father’s name was Michael Luther King.
His father went to Germany on a trip one time, was inspired by the reform of Martin Luther,
changed both of their names to “Martin Luther King.”
When M.L. was—got in trouble, like everybody else—when guys in the neighborhood would
fight, he would say let’s take it to the grass, he liked to wrestle. When he was 14 years old, this is 1941, the beginning of the Second World War, there was a shortage of men, of college-age men, at Morehouse College, because they sent all the kids, all the young men, to war. So—they needed students at Morehouse College. So they started a program to bring in young people who they thought could make it as college students. So Martin Luther King, M.L., 14-years-old, became a college student. So he went to school—he went to college at 14 years old. So he’s there with guys 18 years old, coming back from the war, he’s there with grown-ups, basically.
He’s 14. And he liked to dress: he liked tweed. He had this thing with tweed. So his nickname
was “Tweed.” Hello, Tweed, what’s happenin? And he was a great speaker, even back then,
even as a kid. He read the dictionary; he loved words. So the girls—he would talk to girls. And girls—they’d be asked, “Why do you like M.L.?” They said, “I just love to hear him talk…just love to hear him talk.” And he was smooth. He was a smooth dude. But his grades—he was real smart, but his grades weren’t great.
And his father—Daddy King—was a fundamentalist. At that time, pretty much all religion was
fundamentalism. And Daddy King wanted M.L. to be a preacher. He didn’t want to be a
preacher. He wanted to help Black folks. He said, “I want—I want to do something to help my people.” But he didn’t want to be a preacher. His father really wanted him to be a preacher.
So his father went to Dr. Benjamin Mays, who was the president of Morehouse College and
asked him to mentor young M.L. Dr. Mays is a modern man, he is also a minister, he is not a
fundamentalist. He’s a modern man. At that time you couldn’t even dance at Morehouse.
Dancing was against the law. And Martin—young M.L.—he liked to get down. And Dr. Mays
liked to get down. So when Dr. Mays danced with his wife at home, he had to close the blinds.
Because folks would see him dancing and he’d get in trouble. Like all that dancing y’all been
doing up here? [referring to a praise dance group] That’d be off-limits.
So young M.L.—he goes to college—and he starts to spend time with—with Dr. Mays. And
eventually he would see Dr. Mays and he would call him his spiritual and intellectual mentor.
So here was this young man, super, super big kind of intellect, questioning everything—kind of an emotional kid.
Did you know that young M.L. tried to commit suicide twice? So when he was a kid, he loved
his grandmother—very, very close to his grandmother. So one day, with his brother , they’re
playing in the house, the grandmother’s watching them, they’re sliding down the bannister, hit the grandmother, knock her down, knock her to the ground, she hits her head, basically
knocked her out, they thought they killed her. M.L. was so shook up, ran upstairs, jumped out the second story window, tried to kill himself, hit the ground, shook himself up real bad, but he didn’t die.
The second time was—he was being Tweed—he went downtown to watch a parade, and was
watching the parade when he was supposed to be at church and one of his buddies said, “Did you hear about your grandma?”
“What are you talking about?”
“She passed on at church!”
He ran home, got home, found out, his grandma actually had died. He got so upset. He ran
upstairs, jumped out the window again. Hit the ground. Fortunately did not die.
So he is a kid that has deep, deep feelings. He’s a kid who thinks deeply, and he feels deeply.
So when he’s in college, he’s trying to figure his way, to find a way, to do this thing he wants to do right, so—the question becomes, I don’t want to be a minister, but.—Dr. Mays—is a
different kind of minister. Dr. Mays is an intellectual. One of the things M.L. did not like about
the ministry was it divorced itself from science, it divorced itself from the intellect, it divorced
itself from the here and now. He would see people come up to his father, at the church, and
say, “Rev. King, we have a problem, the police are doing this, you know, my cousin got a
problem at work, all Rev. King could say was “Well, Mrs. Johnson, let’s pray on this, let’s take it to the Lord.” And prayer is a great thing, but young M.L. was saying, “We got to do something else. We got to take some action, too. God expects us to act. That’s the only way God can help us, is through action.”
So he’s starting to embrace Dr. Mays’ liberation theology. Dr. Mays had gone to India and met Gandhi. That’s where he learned the idea of non-violence. That’s the first time he learned the idea of non-violence. Later on, he would learn non-violence also from Bayard Rustin, who was a gay man, a gay Black man, who organized the March on Washington, the I Have a Dream speech was organized by a gay man, a gay Black man, who, the head of the FBI said was a “horrible pervert.” But Dr. King understood that if we hold onto fundamentalism you can’t let a brother like that in. You can’t appreciate the intellect this brother’s got, because—he’s gay.
So he got that way back in 1963, he understood that you can’t let those kind of things stop you from creating what he called, the Beloved Community. The Beloved Community. So Bayard Rustin taught him—about non-violence. Bayard Rustin was a Quaker. And the FBI was trying to destroy Bayard Rustin. And Dr. King understood one thing: When they go after gay folks, when they go after immigrants, when they go after trans folks, when they go after anybody out there that is struggling to find their place in the multiracial democracy—that if you judge them—in the end you’re judging yourself. [Applause]
He learned that from Dr. Mays.
It hits me because, just as they went after Bayard Rustin, the FBI was sending Dr. King a letter, saying, “The best thing you can do is commit suicide.” Did you know about that? The FBI sent him a letter saying, “We know about you having an affair. The best thing for you to do is commit suicide.” J. Edgar Hoover called Dr. King “the most dangerous man in America.”
Rev. Mays read the eulogy at Dr. King’s funeral.
And all the times he got in trouble—when they blew his house up, Yolanda, his child, almost
died, all the threats to his life and his wife and his family—it was Dr. Mays who gave him that
kind of encouragement, and that’s the kind of encouragement, and strengthening advice, and mentorship I got from Father Coady. In life you need someone like that. You need someone to take the time to kind of show you the way, and he was so fortunate to find that in Dr. Mays.
They spent a lot of time together, talking about theology, talking about philosophy, talking
about race—and that gave him the understanding he needed to go forward, to try to do
something with his life in terms of this. So it was Dr. Mays that showed him that he could be a
minister like Dr. Mays.
So he had to fight not just the racism of the South and the North. He had to also kind of break open the idea that Black people had of what religion even was. And what ministers should even do. And he did that. He broke open the whole ball of wax in this country. Dr. King showed us the way—the way to be in America. He showed us the answer. He gave us the way out.
And we killed him for it.
I want to read something here. I want to read from his eulogy—Dr. Mays’ eulogy for Rev. King.
And I don’t want to forget to say this. Do you know that in Mississippi, Alabama, they still to
this day don’t celebrate King Day—they celebrate King/Robert E. Lee Day. You know who
Robert E. Lee is, right? The Confederate general that led the insurrection against the United
States of America, that wanted to make America the Confederate States of America? So still
today, in Alabama and Mississippi, they don’t celebrate, they can’t give Dr. King a day, they still can’t give a whole day to the brother, they’ve got to bring in a Confederate general, too.
I spoke at the University of Virginia, back when I made this film, “CSA,” Confederate States of America, which is about the South winning the Civil War. When I made that film, I started to understand. The South did win the Civil War. They lost on the battlefield but they won in
their attempt to hold onto their way of life. So January 6? You saw the CSA attack the Capitol.
That’s the CSA. Those are the same people that celebrated when Dr. King was killed.
We’ve got a lot of work to do in this country.
But Dr. King showed us the way.
I want to wrap up with this, but I also want to wrap it up with what happened to me in Junction City. And how Father Coady became my mentor. So…there was a riot at the high
school—Junction City High—and—we had a horrible, horrible principal in Junction, I won’t
mention his name—because the dude is still alive— So..I wasn’t in the riot, but my friends were in the riot. And the tension had built, and built, and built in school, and finally it broke. Seeing guys that I knew weren’t bad guys, but do bad things—so when the riot happened, Dr. King said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” So when you’re unheard long enough, you finally break, and bad things happen, right? So it finally broke, bad things happened, and they kicked all these kids out. Most of them did not come back to school. And—and—I looked at that. And it really pissed me off. I’m 16 years old. I read Dr. King. But this was also the time of the Black Power thing. So I was influenced by that some too; it was interesting because one of the reasons Dr. King gave that mountaintop speech, he was being criticized so powerfully by Black folks, the Black Power movement as well, so—he was taking it from all sides. And so when I saw that riot, some of my friends, we got together, and we started throwing firecrackers in the lunchroom, pulled the fire alarms, anything we could do to fight back.
And—so—I created—I got a Molotov cocktail. And mothers have, like, ESP, kind of, X-Ray
vision, super-hero powers—so I had this Molotov cocktail in my bag, in my gym bag. She says, “What’s in your gym bag?” I said, “Oh, just my gym clothes.” “Okay.” So I go to school, and—I never would have used it—but I’d seen “Shaft”—you remember Shaft? And Shaft had a Molotov cocktail too—he jumps through the window, shoots his gun, throws the Molotov cocktail. I wanted to be Shaft. [laughter] So I’m in school, and there’s all this trouble, and over the loudspeaker: “Kevin Willmott, to the office, please. Kevin Willmott.” So I go to the office, the principal’s there, he laughs in my face, ha-ha-ha-ha-. “We finally got you. We finally got you.” He’s got the Molotov cocktail. In walks the Vice-principal. The vice-principal says, “Do you play sports? “ I said, “I don’t play sports.” Said “okay.” He walks right out. See--if I’d played sports, I would have been a Negro of some worth, they would have spared me. So the principal kept laughing. He said, “We’re going to kick you out, and you ain’t never coming back.” And so I got kicked out of school.
But I had a job at the Catholic cemetery, where I met Father Coady. And he got me into Saint Xavier’s High School. [Applause] And he told me to go to college. And I went to graduate school, and that’s why I got an Academy Award.
So cut to 30 years later, I’m in the office of KU, and here comes a guy. He says, “You know,
Kevin, you’re so great”, he’s gonna kiss me up. “You’re so great, We’d love you to teach a class in continuing ed.” I said, “I’ll think about that.” He said, “You’re from Junction City, right?” I said, “Yeah, yeah, I’m from Junction City.” He said, “You know, my father was principal at the high school during a very turbulent time in the 1970s.” [Laughter] So obviously you want to…[pantomimes hauling off to hit the guy]
But I thought about Dr. King…because he didn’t do it.
And he was actually a pretty cool dude.
Let me read you what Dr. Mays said at Dr. King’s funeral, because I think that it that speaks so
much to us today—the challenges we have ahead of us—it’s important to remember, that Dr.
King showed us the way. He gave us the tools, he showed us the way, he gave us everything we needed to make America great again. [Smiles. Laughter. Applause.]
This is right after the assassination, of course: “We all pray that the assassin will be
apprehended and brought to justice. But make no mistake: The American people are in part
responsible for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death. The assassin heard enough condemnation of Dr. King and Negroes to feel that he had public support. He knew that millions hated King.” He closed with this: “If we loved Martin Luther King, Jr., and respected him, as this crowd surely testifies, let us see to it that he did not die in vain. Let’s see to it that we do not dishonor his name by trying to solve our problems through rioting in the streets. Violence was foreign to his nature. He warned that continuing violence could produce a fascist state.” And he goes on, “I close by saying to you what Martin Luther King believed. If physical death was the price he had to pay to rid America of prejudice and injustice, nothing could be more redemptive. To paraphrase the immortal words of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Dr. King’s unfinished work on earth must truly be our own.”
Thank you very much.
[Cheers. Sustained applause.]