This past Tuesday, January 20, as part of Colgate’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Week, a brown bag titled “The Language of the Unheard: Social Justice, Movement Building, and Dr. King’s Legacy” was held in the Center for Women’s Studies. Led by Colgate alumnus and Women’s Studies Program Assistant Che Hatter and Africana and Latin American Studies Program Assistant Anneliese Gretsch, the discussion featured a short lecture as well as an open community conversation.
In order to ignite a dialogue with the audience, the leaders asked the audience what words come to mind when describing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Immediately, words like “leader,” “nonviolent,” “activist,” “inspirational,” “equality” and “dreamer” were written on a poster, demonstrating the commonly taught notions surrounding King. However, Hatter and Gretsch challenged these ideas with opposing words that painted King in a very different light. Instead of reiterating the stereotype that King was the “teddy bear of the Civil Rights Movement,” they used more intense words like “fighter,” “radical,” “warrior,” “divisive” and “extremist” to describe him. With these two radically different images of King, students were challenged to see a different side of King that is not usually taught in school or at home.
Speaking to the common teachings of King as a sweet, inspirational activist, Hatter and Gretsch explained that society tends to avoid using words like “fighter or radical” because King has been rewritten by history. Rather than portray him as the civil disobedient that he was, he is described as a man who achieved change through passive means, primarily because it is an easier conversation for our white-dominated society.
“Society paints this one sided picture of MLK and urges us to be like him, but it totally disregards the active, violent and passionate approaches Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used,” sophomore Sahara Zamudio said.
Understanding this notion, students and faculty discussed the different ways that the “language of the unheard” has recently been characterized by a new voice, turning the conversation to the recent protests in Ferguson and throughout America. Students spoke up to recognize that many of the current activists throughout the country are being demonized due to their reluctance to stay quiet and follow MLK’s “silent” methods.
“The brown bag engaged the audience and pushed us to discuss with one another the idea of a peaceful Martin Luther King, Jr. that history forces upon us, as well as the ways in which we are not taught about his radical actions,” Zamudio said.
In relation to the major themes of Colgate’s MLK Week, Hatter and Gretsch discussed King’s legacy within current life at Colgate, recognizing the problem of keeping ideas too simple. They refused to characterize MLK as a one-dimensional character, as well as the racial issues on Colgate’s campus and throughout the world.
“I think that, just as the complexities of MLK’s activism are often overlooked, certain movements on this campus are as well,” sophomore Rachel Drucker said. “The sit-in, for example, was portrayed as peaceful and inclusive, whereas the die-in was seen as angry and radical, even though I believe both were motivated partly by anger and partly by love.”