ROCKFORD (WREX) — Martin Luther King Jr. would be 91 years old, but his life was tragically cut short. In honor of the man who helped give African Americans the right to vote, two local continue his work by promoting voter registration.
Years before Dr. King "had a dream," he had a vision for the future of the country.
"Let us march on ballot boxes," he said to a crowd in Washington D.C. on May 17, 1957. His "Gives us the ballot" speech, as its come to be known, preceded his "I have a dream" speech by six years. Today, local leaders say they are still "fighting for reform" by fighting for Dr. King's vision of equality at the ballot box.
"We're kicking off a year long celebration of a voter registration drive," Beth McGowan, the chair of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, says.
McGowan's organization partnered with the local branch of the NAACP.
"We're encouraging people to get out and get their voter's registration complete to make sure their name is on the ballot," Rhonda Greer Robinson, the president of Rockford's chapter of the NAACP, says.
The two organizations spent Martin Luther King Jr. Day reminding people in Rockford about the importance of voting.
"Go out and register people to vote," Stanley Arnold, a professor of history at Northern Illinois University, said to the crowd.
Around 100 people showed up at the Nordlof Center for the event and roughly 20 registered right then and there to vote. It was a day of service these groups say Dr. King would have been proud of.
"King saw voting, as I think a lot of African Americans did during this time period, as a means to change the oppression," Arnold explains.
"He referred to voting as a sacred act," another speaker says.
It's that "sacred act" that McGowan and Robinson want everyone to take part in.
"Exercise the right to vote," McGowan says. "It is the central pillar of real democracy."
Robinson adds: "It's important because it changes the world. I heard a young boy just say that if you don't get out and vote and then you complain about it, then you're still part of the problem."
Dr. King was an advocate for the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
"Let us on that glad day in June march on ballot boxes, for this is how we are going to straighten up the south and the nation. Let us march on ballot boxes until somehow we will be able to develop that day," Dr. King said of voting.
And organizers of this push to register voters say thanks to the visions, dreams and work of Dr. King, that day is here.