America must keep its promises of liberty and equality carried in the Declaration of Independence and other iconic documents and laws that enshrine the nation’s history, Marc Lamont Hill said Monday in his keynote lecture for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium.
Hill, an activist and television host of HuffPost Live and BET News, told the coming generation of activists that King has been transformed into “a multicultural action figure, somebody who simply wanted white children and black children to sit at the same table.”
But, he said, in truth King made people uncomfortable — former constituencies even abandoned him — as he sought to expand the fight for justice by speaking against the Vietnam War and fighting for the poor.
“King dies an enemy of the state. I think there’s a lesson in that. The legacy of King is the legacy of dangerous truth telling,” Hill said, adding those who seek justice must keep going.
In welcoming remarks to the crowd filling Hill Auditorium, President Mark Schlissel recalled hosting U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, at Brown University. Lewis is a key figure portrayed in the current film “Selma,” set in 1965 at the height of the civil rights struggle. He helped lead hundreds of non-violent protestors across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.
Schlissel said Lewis at Brown encouraged students “to find a way to get in the way” when faced with injustice.
It has been a year, Schlissel said, since members of the Black Student Union protested U-M’s response to racial issues on Martin Luther King Day, a protest that, along with the hashtag campaign #BBUM — Being Black at U-M — shines new light on problems that have existed for decades.
“The thoughtful and important activism by the BSU students, and their willingness to work together with campus leaders to better the university, is one of the most inspiring highlights of my early months at Michigan,” he said.
Schlissel said the university has responded by initiating several actions including a $650,000 renovation of the Trotter Multicultural Center and continuing a search for new space for the center, and the implementation of the Student Life Change It Up program for first-year students to develop skills and confidence and intervene in situations that negatively affect other individuals and the campus climate.
Next month, he will convene a Leadership Breakfast on Diversity to talk about a path forward and to listen to those who have, in many cases, devoted years of work to improving diversity and the climate on campus.
“This discussion will help to inform the campuswide strategic planning process we are undertaking with the encouragement and with the strong support and the direction of the regents to improve diversity and the campus climate,” Schlissel said. He encouraged sending thoughts or suggestions to him at email@example.com.
In his keynote, Hill said one of King’s gifts was an ability to listen. Following civil rights advances in 1964-65, listening informed King of other areas of society where justice was lacking. He lamented that today, the noise over Twitter, Snapchat and other forms of social media is not conversation.
“The truth is everyone is just talking. There is an absence of deep and profound listening,” he said, adding that the legacy of King would say we need to be listening to poor people.
Hill said the biggest problem in the world today is there are too many people who don’t do anything.
“They’re killing us in the streets and so many of us have done nothing,” he said. “Hashtags can help motivate us but sometimes we have to hit the ground. At some point we have to do something more than change your avatar.”
“The genius of King was that he was an organizer. He was working to dismantle the machinery of power,” Hill said.
But while King is now revered, in his later life many turned against him for coming out against the Vietnam War and advocating for a living wage. Hill said today’s activists seeking justice for incarcerated prisoners, for the LBGT community, those speaking out against corporate greed and others also can expect to be shunned.
“To act bravely is to work in the service of justice. To act bravely is to speak the truth when it’s difficult,” Hill said.
Introducing Schlissel was Robert Sellers, university vice provost for equity, inclusion and academic affairs. Both praised the Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium Planning Committee, the Office of Academic Multicultural Initiatives and others who planned symposium programs, which continue into February.
“One of the things that makes the symposium particularly great is the spirit and the hard work and imagination of the faculty and students and staff of the University of Michigan,” Sellers said.
After viewing the program from the audience, Kim Rustem, a graduate student with the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, said Hill did an excellent job connecting King’s legacy to current events such as Ferguson, LGBT rights and prisoners.
“We still have promises we need to fulfill,” she said.