Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration calls out current issues, urges audience to act

The Center for Student Diversity and Inclusion hosted a virtual event to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, during which speakers called out issues within SIUE and drew attention to King’s unpopularity during his lifetime. 


Assistant political science professor and keynote speaker Timothy Lewis said in “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King told evangelical ministers and American citizens they were lying to themselves if they thought the legal system in America moved society toward justice. Lewis asked if Americans keep the same way of thinking today. 


“In this reflective, celebratory moment, honoring the titan of terminology himself, we need to ask ourselves the question, ‘Are we lying to ourselves?’ Because America’s so whitewashed by false notions of American exceptionalism that we cannot see the truth,” Lewis said. “Are we really claiming racial progress when blunt force has been the leading cause of death for Black people since the slave patrols? Are we really claiming racial equity when systemic racism allows hospitals to offer lower quality of care to Black people in the middle of a pandemic when Black people are dying at three times the rates of [white people]? Are we claiming a justice system when a Black woman can be shot to death in her bed and we charge the officer who shot the drywall, not the officer that shot the woman?”


Lewis then focused on SIUE specifically.


“Are we at SIUE claiming that the tenure process is fair? I question that when there are entire departments that have never granted tenure to African Americans. Are we at SIUE [claiming] that Black lives matter? I question that because white faculty and staff retire. Black faculty and staff relocate. Are we at SIUE [claiming] racial equity? I question that because the USC Race and Equity Center has given SIUE the grade of an F when it comes to completion equity for Black graduates,” Lewis said. “And please, are we still claiming anti-racism? I question that when the administration won’t even make diversity training mandatory.”


SIU System President Dan Mahony said while people tend to respect King’s work today, they often forget that what he fought for made him unpopular.


“We often think of [King] and the popularity that he often has today, and don’t recognize that during his life, he was one of the most hated men in America, and we have to reflect on that as well. So to me, this is not just a day of service and about giving back, although that’s certainly important, this is an opportunity to reflect on whether we’ve done all that we can, and every year I always say, ‘No, not yet, not enough.’ And so it’s an opportunity for each of us to consider what we can do next year to help fulfill Dr. King’s vision for our country,” Mahony said.”


Tarsha Moore, assistant director of the Center for Student Diversity and Inclusion, asked the audience to learn about King’s message in its entirety.


“My ask is that moving forward, we no longer paint Dr. King’s picture as the individual quotes that dilute his holistic message and who he really was. I ask that you learn more about him and, really, what he stood for as a person, as a Black man, and really think about the things that are happening right now in our community,” Moore said.


Moore called on the audience members to stand up for their beliefs despite the possibility of being met with animosity by others, like King did.


“[There may be a moment] where your peers might not be very fond of you, because a lot of people weren’t fond of Dr. King, and do we have the courage, individually and collectively, to face that level of discomfort and keep moving forward? Because we know that’s when, years from now, the children that we are passing this legacy into the hands of, that they’ll reflect on these times to say, ‘We have to keep going, the same way that they did,’” Moore said.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Awards Ceremony will be held virtually at 4 p.m. on Jan. 29.

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