Saying that nothing can be accomplished without acknowledging the past, Johnnetta B. Cole encouraged optimism about the future of relations between all Americans.
Cole, educator and former director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, delivered the keynote speech Jan. 25 at William & Mary’s 2018 Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration in a full Commonwealth Auditorium.
“We’re living in such profoundly troubling times,” Cole said. “And if we’re not careful, do you know we could actually lose hope? We could lose hope that true change will ever come. …
“Well, I can tell you that I might not see the day when everyone is judged by the ‘content of his or her character.’ But I surely have the responsibility to fight, to fight in a non-violent way for that day to come – if not for me, for future generations.”
Cole was a pioneer of African-American studies and black women’s studies and made history as the first female African-American president of Spelman College, the oldest historically black women’s college in the country. She later served as the president of Bennett College for Women. She is the only person to have served as president of both of these historically black colleges for women in the U.S. She is also professor emerita at Emory University, from which she retired as Presidential Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, Women’s Studies and African American Studies.
This year’s MLK event, sponsored by the Center for Student Diversity, was part of the university’s 50th anniversary commemoration of African-American students in residence. Sitting in the front row were the three alumnae being honored this academic year, the first African-American students to live in W&M dormitories – Lynn Briley ’71, Janet Brown Strafer ’71 and Karen Ely ’71.
Thursday’s event featured a dance performance by students, a video tribute and moment of silence honoring King’s legacy, and an audience question-and-answer session with Cole after her remarks.
Cole shared her thoughts on where American society is today in its efforts toward equality and inclusion of all citizens. She made repeated references to the need to acknowledge historical accomplishments and provide pathways to success for everybody regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, disability, nationality or any other possible differences.
Cole frequently referenced and quoted King and used the pioneering examples of Briley, Strafer and Ely as the only way that steps can be taken toward change and progress for future generations. Taking on the hypothetical question of how King would view our nation and world today, and what King would ask of the current generation in order to build on his work – along with what Briley, Strafer and Ely would ask — she had a few ideas.
“ … He would remind us of how much work is yet to be done,” Cole said, going on to describe how current national and global conflicts are dividing people.
“I stand with all that Dr. Martin Luther King stood for, and I stand with all of you who are gathered here tonight in affirming that we must respect differences among us,” Cole said. “We must celebrate our differences until our differences don’t make any more difference.”
Another suggestion was to call for courageous leadership, while taking personal responsibility to fight for change using King’s own non-violent means.
“It calls upon you to call out bigotry of any form whenever, wherever it is expressed, beginning here at William & Mary,” Cole said. “ … There’s an African saying that speaks to the power of one person to make a difference. It says if you believe one creature cannot make a difference, you have never spent the night in a closed room with a mosquito.”
Cole urged those present to engage with people who don’t agree with them, saying that the only path to reasoned understanding is to have sometimes uncomfortable conversations about disparate views.
“We’ve got to cross these lines of difference,” she said.