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Daughters of civil rights leaders visit Mills to pass on the dream

Almost fifty years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King spoke at the Mills Concert Hall. On the evening of April 7, this same concert hall was transformed into a church of remembrance and a temple of understanding as Susannah Heschel and Yolanda King honored the legacy their fathers began in Selma, Alabama, forty years earlier.

Heschel is the daughter of the late Abraham Joshua Heschel, a rabbi of Hasidic descent who emigrated from Poland just prior to World War II. King is the daughter of the late Martin Luther King Jr., a Baptist preacher from the South. Forty years ago, these men connected over the need for civil rights and their love of the Bible, and marched together from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Now their daughters are continuing their fathers' struggle and keeping their memory alive.

When King was in college, her mother urged her to develop and continue a relationship with Susannah to keep their fathers' relationship alive through another generation. Together, they now spread a message of acceptance and activism.

Behind a podium draped in lilies, Heschel began her remarks with fiery warnings. She discussed intersections of biblical tragedies and current events in America with observations that would shape the flavor of the night.

"It's hard to dream today. These times are challenging and it's hard not to feel a sense of despair," Heschel said. "This country is growing very cruel and it needs us to give voices to the voiceless."

Both women repeatedly referred to the fact that their fathers' work remains unfinished. While the issues at the heart of their fight are the same as their fathers', this new chapter has its own story. Instead of segregation, Heschel referred to the growing prison-industrial complex and the increasing number of African American prisoners. She said this "enslavement" has disenfranchised 7 percent of the African American vote.

"To save the soul of America we need a new abolitionist movement," Heschel said. She ended her opening remarks by warning the packed audience, "The opposite of good is not evil; the opposite is indifference."

King then entered the stage and instead of being confined to the podium, she roamed the stage connecting with the audience. She greeted the audience with the words, "Today is the day we rise; rise and follow that still, small voice that stirs our soul."

Instead of referencing the political climate as Heschel did, she mused on modern human interaction. She said although the United States doesn't have imposed segregation today, people still don't get along beyond merely tolerating each other's presence. However, she stressed we are more alike than different, as all people share 99 percent of the same DNA.

"It proves conclusively that the most important parts of us are the same. We must celebrate our difference until our differences don't make a difference," King said.

Using her experience as an actress, King alternated between different personalities to tell stories of bravery and unity. She referenced the historical moment that united the two speakers' histories as she told the story of the Selma march through the eyes of 8-year-old Cheyenne, the youngest member of the march.

Each woman's message impacted the audience in a different way, and for junior Stephanie McLeod, it was an inspiration to become more active by responding to the wrong she sees in the world.

"One message that most resonated with me is to make sure that you are maladjusted to all the bad stuff going on," McLeod said. "When I see things happening that aren't right it hurts me inside, so it's good to know that other people feel this way."

Following the opening presentations, the women sat down with Mills' President Janet Holmgren and began a dialogue. Moving past their prepared remarks, they were able to reveal tender details about life with fathers who were absent much of their young lives.

"Our home was filled with love. Although we didn't have quantity, we had quality," King said. She also reflected on her father's private persona. Although publicly known as very serious, at home, King said, "daddy was a cut-up." Sharing a littleknown anecdote, King told the audience that her father had had a pillow fight the day that he was assassinated.

To close the evening, each woman shared three pieces of advice given to them by their fathers that they still cherish and live by today. Heschel advised the audience to never despair, always guard your tongue and always celebrate. King advised love of self ("the healthy self love, not where you are a legend in your own head"), love of others and love of God. And both Heschel and King urged the audience to find their inner spiritual power which would allow them to accomplish greater things.

"By the end of the evening I felt like it was a very comfortable atmosphere for a conversation. I felt very connected to the women," McLeod said. "Everyone feels that we need robots for leaders, but [Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Heschel] were just real people."