In honor of Black History Month and the work of Martin Luther King Jr., Mt. Hood’s Associated Student Government invited actor, motivational speaker, and activist Barry Scott to speak about the civil rights leader’s influence on him and what King’s message means to the nation today.
Winter weather had forced the event to be rescheduled from its original February date.
Scott’s main point made during his talk was: “Why are you here?” He asked the audience that question several times. He wanted everyone to think about their purpose, and what they wished to do with their lives to make the world a place that can make people feel good about themselves.
His said his appearance was a tribute to King’s core values. “It’s not about a guy who said, ‘I have a dream.’ We honor Martin Luther King Jr. because of the values he had, the courage he had.”
Scott said he reveres words. “I’ll never give up on this country because of the words that make up the Constitution; the words that make up the Declaration of Independence,” he said. The words on those documents matter because they represent a mission statement of the U.S. and it’s something for the people of this country to strive for, he explained.
POWER OF ‘THE DREAM’
King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, when Scott was 12 years old.
Scott’s father came home with a 16mm film projector and had the family watch King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.
“My father wanted to put into context his living and not his horrible death he’d just experienced,” said Scott. “I felt good listening to him speak. I felt really good – and that was really hard to do when you were growing up colored.”
After watching, Scott wanted to see the film again, but no one else did. His father showed him how to thread the projector, and Scott took it to his bedroom and watched it on repeat throughout the night, imitating King’s gestures and words. “I guess I got too loud because my bedroom door opened and my mom and dad walked into my room, and I knew my dad was going to punish me because I was mocking the greatest negro in America.
“Here I am in my underwear screaming ‘I have a dream!’” said Scott. His father thought Scott did a good job and predicted his son would one day recite the speech at church.
“One Sunday morning in February, my father woke me up,” said Scott. “He had this typewritten piece of paper in his hand, he said, ‘Today is the day, son. Today you shall recite the speech: ‘I have a dream.’ ” Scott was terrified. He attempted to get out of reciting it, but was forced to do so anyway.
He managed it, but his perspiration was dripping on the paper, smudging the words, so he read what he could. “I skipped over the words I couldn’t identify and said the words I could recognize, so I was making a complete fool of myself,” he said.
He received a standing ovation from the church and was encouraged to continue speaking the sort of language that King spoke.
BULLIED BY POLICE
The moment that really made Scott realize he needed to spread King’s message was after another screening of that film in living room. This came after Scott’s whole family was laughed at by the entire local police department when he reported he had been harassed by an officer.
Earlier that night, Scott got the permission from his parents to go on a date by himself. He wore a Michael Jackson-style shirt with ruffles, a collar that went up to his ears, and he unbuttoned it down to his navel. He was driving a Pontiac LeMans, and he was confident. “I was looking good, my afro was perfectly picked out, and you know, back then, people said I looked exactly like Michael Jackson.”
His car would stop functioning when he drove over a puddle, so he would have to use a special method to restart it which often took multiple tries. While he was trying that night, a stranger walked up with a gun, telling Scott to get out of the car using the ‘N’ word. Scott was terrified. “I just sat there with my hands gripping my steering wheel. I don’t think I was breathing – he took the gun, he hit the glass hard – I thought the glass would break, but it didn’t,” he said.
Eventually the stranger flashed a badge, and Scott was relieved. The cop demanded that he exit the car, then forced him to call him “Sir” while pressing the gun to his head. The officer then made Scott call his father a drunk, and refer to his mother as a whore. Scott started crying.
The cop then asked Scott why he was crying. “He said, ‘Don’t you know you people bring all of this on yourselves? You people are ruining this country,’ ” said Scott. He then threatened to kill Scott, but let him go. When he got home, Scott’s father knew something was wrong, and demanded the truth.
After Scott watched the King film once again, he realized he wasn’t afraid. “Moments earlier, I thought I would never escape my shame,” he recalled. But he got over the hate he felt for police officers. “I didn’t want to hate anybody, because it hurts to hate.”
Ending his talk, Scott said the U.S. has made great strides with civil rights and becoming a more integrated society, but there is still work to be done. Today, people who didn’t live through the struggle that Black people had to live through can still understand what they went through.
Scott said that expressing the progress and complexities of what we see as race relations today is the responsibility of the millennial generation. “Who will write the words: ‘We can be better, and this is how,’ ” he asked the Mt. Hood audience. “The ‘why’ has not changed.”