About 600 people attended the Jan. 20 MLK Racial Justice Teach-In at Clark University to honor and celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and to rally for an America that embodies his vision of justice for all members of society.
The day-long event was organized by a planning committee comprising faculty and staff from the Center for Gender, Race and Area Studies, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, and the Office of Multicultural and First Generation Student Support. It closed with a send-off to those boarding a bus headed for the Jan. 21 Women’s March on Washington, as well as a Black Tears Community Art Project in Tilton Hall and an arts salon.
“We forget history at our peril,” noted Esther Jones, professor of English and director of the Africana studies concentration, in her introductory remarks that launched the day’s series of more than 30 workshops and presentations. She said King was a scholar and activist for peace, someone who uncompromisingly faced off against injustice “everywhere and anywhere he saw it.”
Associate professor of history Ousmane Power-Greene, who delivered the keynote address, said King acknowledged that most Americans were unwilling to accept meaningful social change, even while deluding themselves into believing that they did.
“We forget history at our peril.”
He noted that President Donald Trump’s campaign played on racial and xenophobic biases and fears among many Americans, a worldview that is ultimately unproductive.
King “showed hate could rally people to act collectively toward destruction, but hate could not be the cornerstone from which anything worthy could be built,” Power Greene said. “He believed power at its best is rooted in a love of justice.”
Fellow panelist Robert Ross, research professor of sociology, offered perspective on the power of the labor movement and the impact of strategic boycotts to ignite change. Jude Fernando, associate professor of international development and social change, delved into King’s faith and the theological underpinnings of his activism.
The Teach-In was not a one-off event, Jones promised. “It’s a springboard for future dialogue and action.”
Workshop topics ranged from “King's 'Beyond Vietnam' and Class in America” to “Cultural Appropriation” to “Storytelling as a Practice of Justice.” Below is a look at a few of the sessions.
The Role of Technology in Racial Justice
Faculty members in this session raised a number of topics and questions, including: Why has the idea of technology as a great equalizer not come to pass? Can technology itself be racist? Can technology enable or curb racial discrimination and racism? Who has access to technology, and who gets to interpret it?
Betsy Huang, associate professor of English, and John Magee, assistant professor in the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science, highlighted articles and websites to explore such questions and led a discussion with the audience. Huang pointed students and faculty to CulturalPolitics.net, which includes a section on “Racializing Cyberspaces,” with a deep bibliography of sources on online racial and racist representations, digital access, stereotyping, data mining, discriminatory e-marketing, digital segregation, and more. Huang recommended the site for examining the “ways in which structural racism gets replicated in online platforms.
“Space is connected to identity very, very deeply,” Huang added, “and online space is where the battles of identity politics are engaged.”
'Where Do We Go from Here?': Reflections and Responses to the Inauguration
In an afternoon plenary, a panel reflected on the question “Where do we go from here?” posed by the Rev. Martin Luther King in his 1967 book and speech that analyzed the state of race relations. Moderator Eric DeMeulenaere, assistant professor of urban schooling in the Department of Education and a coordinator with Clark’s Center for Gender, Race and Area Studies, posed the same question to the panel, which had gathered just a few hours after Donald Trump was sworn in as president.
“What can folks here offer us as a chart or compass or North Star?” asked DeMeulenaere, invoking King’s declaration made a year before the civil rights leader was assassinated.
Robert Boatright, professor of political science, reminded the audience that any president, including Trump, needs congressional backing to enact the major changes he promised. “I don’t know where we’re going, but we’re not necessarily headed to the place where Donald Trump wants to take us.” He suggested “[resisting] the temptation to think this is a different country from what it was a year ago or several years ago. It’s not. It’s the same country that elected Barack Obama and it’s the same country that elected George Bush. … Don’t let this election define for you what it means to be American or what you think your country is.”
“Now, in order to answer the question, ‘Where do we go from here?’ … we must first honestly recognize where we are now.”
Sheree Marlowe, chief officer of diversity and inclusion, referenced King’s speech, where he said, “Now, in order to answer the question, ‘Where do we go from here?’ … we must first honestly recognize where we are now.”
It’s important to recognize that in the 2016 election, “these issues that surfaced through the campaign rhetoric didn’t show up overnight; these are issues that have been going on historically for decades,” Marlowe said. She also addressed the debate over speech on college campuses, suggesting that audience members challenge “who gets to set that narrative of what kind of speech is acceptable in higher education and beyond” and consider that “when those arguments take place, what is your role in interrupting and countering that narrative?”
The panel’s additional speakers included Julius Jones, a Clark alumnus, founder of Black Lives Matter Worcester and co-director of Worcester Roots Project, Inc.; Themal Ellawala '17, a psychology major and history minor from Sri Lanka; Hasnaa Mokhtar, a Clark doctoral candidate who has spoken and written about her life as Muslim American in an age of rising hate crimes; and Amira Mohamed, a visiting professor from The American University in Cairo who is teaching international government courses at Clark.
Race and the Nation in Global Perspective
Language, Literature and Culture faculty members Robert Deam Tobin, Alice Valentine and Odile Ferly discussed the complicated historical relationship and differences between race and national identity — two classifications both characterized by divisive and shared features — in Germany, Japan and Haiti, respectively.
Historically, Germany saw the concept of volk or “folk,” as meaning both people and nation. “It can lead to confusion and complications,” Tobin said.
Valentine said historically Japanese culture looked at national identity as an “insider versus outsider” relationship based on location or occupation, not race, while Ferly said Haiti became a symbol of freedom for new world colonies after abolishing slavery and winning its independence in 1804.
Historical events such as imperialism, colonialism and World War II, along with economic and class considerations, have shifted how race, nation and ethno-nationalism are thought of in these countries and elsewhere in the world, the trio explained.
Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, and the Long Arc of U.S. Women’s History
The presentation by Amy Richter, associate professor of history, focused on the contributions of first ladies Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton, identifying and celebrating their strengths, as well as the ways they furthered the progress of women through their individual narratives.
The discussion was structured around a quote by Theodore Parker, a Unitarian minister and prominent American Transcendentalist born in 1810, who said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Both President Barack Obama and Martin Luther King, Jr. repeated these powerful words in their writings and speeches.
Richter used two New York Times articles and an essay from the recently published book “The Meaning of Michelle” to guide the discussion, which was lively and positive. The group talked about Michelle Obama’s self-defined position as “mom-in-chief” and the positive role model she became. Richter discussed the similarities between Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton — two trailblazing women who each were First Lady for eight years. Session participants also identified which constructs of femininity are empowering and which are constraining.
Undocumented College Students, Social Exclusion, and Psychosocial Well-Being
Rosalie Torres Stone, professor of sociology, addressed the well-being of undocumented college students. The latest data, from 2008, notes 11.9 million undocumented immigrants in the United States — two million of them are children and 7,000 to 13,000 are enrolled in college. Some of these students were granted two-year deferments from deportation action under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy.
Some undocumented students don’t learn of their immigration status until they reach high school. They discover they legally cannot participate in the same rites of passage they see their classmates experiencing, like getting a job, a license, or registering to vote, she said. And when it comes time to apply to college, there are more roadblocks. Only 20 states offer in-state tuition to undocumented students, which severely limits where they can enroll. And they are not eligible for federal student aid, so they must search for private scholarships or cover those costs out-of-pocket.
On campus measures such as a resource guide for undocumented students and sensitivity training for faculty and staff would be helpful, Torres Stone said.
The bottom line, she said, is that DACA students “didn’t choose this life. They’re still people, and their immigration status doesn’t define who they are. They may be undocumented, but they grew up immersed in American culture.”
In feedback forms, many students expressed their appreciation for the opportunity to learn about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and to place his spirit of activism in a contemporary context.
“I think it's so crucial that we hear from both scholars and activists. They were inspiring on a day in which we as students really needed that inspiration,” said one student. Another participant noted, “King had a rich history and philosophy that is rarely taught and must be sought out.”
A student summed up the spirit of the day with a reflection on how best to proceed: “Be involved, participate, act, do my best to help those more vulnerable than I.”
Photo at top: Ousmane Power-Greene, associate professor of history; Robert Ross, research professor of sociology; and Jude Fernando, associate professor of international development and social change, speak during an MLK Racial Justice Teach-In panel presentation in Tilton Hall.