More than 1,000 students and Ann Arbor residents filled Hill Auditorium on Monday to hear keynote speakers principal and co-founder of the James and Grace Lee Boggs School in Detroit Julia Putnam and anti-racism activist and writer Tim Wise discuss issues of inequality and injustice in America.
The keynote memorial lecture is just one event in a two-week series of discussions, forums and events honoring Martin Luther King Jr. and his efforts in the civil rights movement.
The event began with a performance from Mosaic Youth Theatre before transitioning to remarks from Robert Sellers, vice provost for equity and inclusion and chief diversity officer, as well as Scott DeRue, dean of the Ross School of Business. DeRue introduced University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel.
Schlissel said the symposium is one of the largest events honoring Martin Luther King Jr. in the country. He commended the work of the event organizers in his speech.
“We’re proud that the University of Michigan Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium is one of our nation's largest university celebrations of the life and legacy of Dr. King,” Schlissel said. “It reflects our desire to serve society and strive for a better, more equitable, more just and more peaceful world.”
Putnam began her lecture by singing an excerpt from the Freedom Singers’ “Woke Up This Morning,” and her speech focused on hope, freedom and education. After reading quotes from American slaves struggling for freedom, Putnam expressed her concern about the education system.
“Fast forward 15 years to 2008, I joined a group of educators who questioned the current system of education,” Putnam said. “We understood then and now that [the system] is outdated, often dehumanizing; and for many children and adults, school feels as unfree as slavery.”
Putnam put further emphasis on education by describing it as the solution for modern societal issues.
“We don't have the final answer,” Putnam said. “But I believe we are a bridge to what our institutions can and will be because we have begun practicing what can and will be. We are nurturing the people who will show us a new way.”
Wise began his lecture criticizing the general public for their historical remembrance and neglect of King’s work.
“When we remember Dr. King, of course we do it selectively, don’t we?” Wise said. “We pick out only the pretty and the easy parts, the simple parts, the one line from one speech. You know the speech and you know the line, the one about judging people by the content of their character not the color of their skin. That is the easiest, least radical, least revolutionary thing Dr. King has ever said. That's why we pull that one out.”
Wise continued by citing examples of various lesser-known quotes and stances from King.
“They don't talk about what the man said a year to the day before he was taken from us by an assassin's bullet when he spoke at the riverside church in New York and he said what that even though it pained him to acknowledge it, he had to admit this country, his country, my country, your country had become the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” Wise said.
Junior LSA student Seth Garrett said he was moved by the personal stories of the speakers, and hopes the University can work to implement their ideas into campus life.
“Having both of those speakers, they both complement each other greatly,” Garrett said. “Julia’s stories were so moving about her experience helping students realize and get a sense of how society is. Tim Wise was really charismatic and his approach was equally as powerful. I believe the call to action he had for all of us was very moving. I really hope the University can learn a lot from what they had to say about combating institutional racism.”
Following the lectures, both Putnam and Wise participated in a moderated dialogue with Bridge Magazine reporter Chastity Pratt Dawsey. The dialogue occurred in a question-and-answer format where several topics were discussed.
When asked about current problems with American social systems, Wise said the issue was with their creation.
“When you start with the assumption that inequity is an evidence of failure, see, I think you’re lost,” Wise said. “Failure is not failure at all. Inequality — if you think of it like an app on your phone — inequality is not a glitch in the system. It is a feature of the system that was programmed in from the beginning.”
According to LSA sophomore Jolyna Chiangong, program assistant for the symposium, this year’s theme of “unravel” allows for a start to a complicated discussion, as well as an exploration into the root of injustice in the United States.
“I think we’re caught in a phase of knowing that something is an issue, understanding that something is wrong, not necessarily knowing where to start or where to begin to break that down,” Chiangong said. “So with ‘unravel’ it’s almost a question of where do we go from here, where do we start, where do we begin, and I think it helps everyone to find a role.”
Expanding on the theme of the symposium, Schlissel said the event's theme allows for reflection for individuals as well as on the country as a whole.
“The symposium theme ‘unravel’ gives us the important opportunity to question and examine not only the society we serve, but also ourselves,” Schlissel said. “It aligns so importantly with Dr. King’s vision.”
Chiangong also had the chance to speak at the symposium, introducing lecturers Julia Putnam and Tim Wise.
“Being the only student (speaking), it just came (with) a lot of responsibility,” Chiangong said. “But it also pushed me to want to do well. Being surrounded by even the president of the University or all these great people inspires you to want to be great as well and to live up to the expectations of the MLK symposium.”
LSA Junior Nikita Bazaj explained she attended the event because she wanted to remind herself of Dr. King’s contributions and making the most of the University’s opportunities.
“I went to the MLK symposium because a lot of the time I spend MLK day not thinking about MLK himself but instead just enjoying the day off,” Bazaj said in an message to The Daily. “This year I wanted to go to an event to think more about the day itself and take advantage of all of the amazing speakers this University attracts.