One week after the country observed Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Marc Lamont Hill emphasized that the work of the past is not over and that people -- no matter their race, gender, creed, ethnicity or sexuality -- need to "act bravely.”
“To act bravely, the first thing you’ve got to do is act," said Hill.
The charge was part of Hill’s address to students, faculty, staff and community members in William & Mary’s Commonwealth Auditorium Wednesday night as part of the university’s annual King commemoration, hosted by the Center for Student Diversity and Black Law Student Association. The event came just days after more than 100 students attended a daylong summit at the Sadler Center to discuss how they might act to move racial justice forward. Both events were timely considering recent incidents and exchanges on social media that have highlighted racial issues on William & Mary’s campus.
Hill, distinguished professor of African American studies at Morehouse College and a frequent political contributor on CNN, spoke on the theme of “The Dream: Post-Ferguson.”
In his address, Hill connected the past to the present, saying, “the legacy of King is a legacy of sacrifice and what King called dangerous unselfishness. To follow the legacy of King you have to have a sense of history."
"This past is one that we like to erase; it's one that we want to forget,” Hill said. “But we must constantly rummage through history and retrieve these memories so that we can have a true narrative of what happened but also so that we don't repeat history because we don't come to terms with it."
Hill challenged the audience to leave the commemoration that night ready to take action.
"We should all leave here in the legacy of King committed to joining an organization, committed to sacrificing for an organization, committed to rolling up our sleeves, committed to paying the price, committed to telling the truth, committed to listening to each other, committed to having a sense of history, committed to having a deeper analysis, committed to creating a project of freedom that is bigger and broader and brighter and better than anything we have imagined," said Hill.
Just a few days before Hill’s speech, Vernon Hurte, director of the Center for Student Diversity, also drew inspiration from King in opening the “Bending the Arc: Moving Racial Justice Forward” summit for students. The event was sponsored by the Center for Student Diversity in an effort to help students move from “this catalytic moment in the struggle for racial justice to a movement that can achieve lasting change,” according to the event description.
“[King] said, ‘The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character, that’s the goal of true education,’” Hurte said. “Our intention for today, our intention as a center every day is to provide opportunities for us to engage in the kind of learning and to engage in the kind of exchange that Dr. King spoke of in this quote. Today, at this summit, we’ve come in a collaborative and communal way to think intensively and to think critically about the challenges and issues we face in our nation.”
A need for ‘deep listening’
The workshop was organized following events on campus at the end of the fall semester that highlighted the need for more open dialogue about racial issues on campus. In November and December, students, faculty and staff participated in two “Black Lives Matter” demonstrations on campus, including a “die-in” at Swem Library that drew more than 200 people. The peaceful demonstrations were part of a national reaction to grand jury decisions in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Following the event at Swem, however, there were a number of racist comments on social media, including some anonymous comments, directed toward protest participants.
President Taylor Reveley and Vice President for Student Affairs Ginger Ambler issued messages to the campus community condemning the exchanges on social media and calling on more civility and respect among members of the William & Mary family.
“Civility customarily governs conversation and communication at William & Mary. It is especially important that it grace our conversations about racial issues,” Reveley said in a Dec. 17 message to the campus. “A particularly loathsome and ineffective manifestation of incivility is the denigration of individuals or groups by means of unsigned comments on social media in terms meant to wound, not persuade. Some comments of this sort followed peaceful demonstrations on our campus after the recent grand jury decisions.”
The need for open dialogue about racism on campus was again apparent following news over the past week that William & Mary student organizations hosted parties that included racially insensitive themes and costumes. One such off-campus party, called “Gangsters and Golfers,” triggered reaction from many on campus.
Ambler, in a statement to The Flat Hat student newspaper, said Hill’s message about listening and learning was a timely one for the W&M campus.
“In the context of last weekend’s student organization parties that featured racist costumes and offensive themes, I find myself returning to Dr. Hill’s call to ‘deep listening.’ When it comes to addressing difficult and painful social issues, there is indeed an abundance of talking and a dearth of deep listening,” Ambler said. “Meaningful dialogue requires both. My hope is that we each take seriously Dr. Hill’s challenge to talk less and listen more.”
Reveley, in a statement on the matter, said news of the racially insensitive parties was “very disappointing.”
“When it comes to cultural understanding and civility on campus, we have more work to do,” Reveley said. “I hope and expect that we will proceed to do it along the lines sketched in my message to the campus last December.”
He added that Student Affairs staff and others in the administration were talking with all parties involved. “It is important that we have direct, candid conversations about the damage done,” Reveley said. “A William & Mary community in which all are welcome and respected is crucially important.”
An opportunity to build community
The workshop hosted by the Center for Student Diversity offered opportunities for some of those direct conversations. The event included a multitude of break-out sessions, led by faculty and staff, on topics ranging including the experiences and perspectives of black men and women, solidarity among people of color, engaging as a white ally, faith and racial justice, creative expression as a means of engagement, self-care for activists, productive activism and strategies for navigating others’ racism, disinterest or denial.
Caper Gooden ’16 said she attended to learn more about how she can get involved with moving social justice and racial equality forward.
“While systemic racial inequity has been important to me for a long time, I've never had a clear understanding of what I can do to help end it,” she said.
The event helped create a safe space for people of different backgrounds to engage in dialogue, Gooden said.
“The most important thing I think the summit accomplished was allowing people to relate to each other and share their stories, thereby building a community,” she said. “As for me, the biggest take away was that there are plenty of students on campus who are interested in and informed about the problems of systemic racism, and that made me feel much more optimistic about the future of social justice on campus.”
Chikamso Chukwu ’18, too, said that attending the workshop helped her feel more connected to the William & Mary community.
“It’s good to know that there are people in the community who understand your struggle and take part in it, also, even if they aren’t African-American or minority. It’s helpful to know that they want to be a part of what’s going on,” she said.
The need for community is something that Robert Vinson emphasized in his closing session at the event, pulling on lessons from the Civil War, Civil Rights movement and apartheid to discuss how moments turned into movements. The people involved in all three of the aforementioned movements had a broad vision, the audacity to dream big dreams and the persistence to see those become reality, Vinson said. They also had strong ties with one another long before they saw those dreams come true.
“I think the most important thing at the very grass roots is that we have to be in relationship with each other because that’s what will sustain us going forward,” said Vinson, University Associate Professor of Teaching Excellence. “If we’re not in relationship with each other, then we can’t enact our big, broad dreams. That will sustain us. That will provide the moral booster when we’re down and out, when times are tough.”
A commitment to ‘act bravely’
More than 50 years after King’s “dream” speech, the nation and the world is still in need of leaders who can think intensively and critically about issues of racial justice, Hurte told participants of Saturday’s workshop.
“Because given all that we are experiencing in our communities across this country and across the world, it is clear that we have not found our way. Our nation is still in need of healing and still in need of transformation, and experiences in Ferguson and experiences in New York and across this country are clear evidence that we have not found our way. The challenges we face on college and university campuses across this nation including our beloved College, remind us that we still have much work to do.
Although the work is hard and requires the courage and commitment to “act bravely,” as Hill would later say, it is still work that we can and should do, said Hurte.
“Because there is still hope. Dr. King reminded us of that. That same hope when he said, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.’ Realizing this dream won’t happen overnight but we work with a steadfast hope knowing that the arc of the moral universe does indeed bend towards justice. I believe your participation in today’s summit is evidence that you believe as Dr. King believed.”
Sydney MaHan '16 and Erin Zagursky contributed to this story.