Campus community members gathered Monday morning to commence the 2023 University of Michigan Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium Memorial Keynote Lecture. Hosted in Hill Auditorium, The Symposium was co-sponsored by the Office of Academic Multicultural Initiatives, the Ross School of Business and the Stephen M. Ross Athletic Campus, and centered around the theme — “(R)evolution: from Segregation to Elevation.”

The event began with an introduction from Tabbye Chavous, the University’s vice provost for equity and inclusion and chief diversity officer. Chavous spoke on University President Santa Ono’s immediate dedication and commitment to social justice following his appointment in October. She added that Ono’s support for new initiatives such as the Inclusive History Project, which documents the University’s history around race and racism, and larger community issues is exciting for the campus as a whole. She said Ono planned to give remarks, but was unable to attend due to an illness.

“We wish him a speedy recovery,” Chavous said. “In his absence, I would like to recognize his role in the fight for social justice as a higher education leader, from his efforts to support mental health access and eliminate cultural stigmas to his reparative and reconciliatory work for the University and Indigenous communities.”

Chavous’ remarks were followed by Laurie McCauley, University Provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, who filled in for Ono. McCauley said she was grateful for those who made the symposium possible, and that members of the University must continue to work together to build a more equitable, just and inclusive community. 

“We cannot be excellent without being diverse in the broadest sense,” McCauley said. “That is why I was so pleased to see the results of our DEI 1.0 strategic plan initiative that we announced last week. The evaluation made it clear … we’ve made much progress, even though there’s still more to do.”

After McCauley’s remarks, Dr. Scott Piper and Daniel A. Washington, professors of music in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, performed “Black Pilgrims,” a hip-hop and electronic opera. “Black Pilgrims,” which was written by Stephen Rush, another U-M professor of music, portrays a conversation between Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. 

“(In composing this piece) I took the words of Dr. King and Malcolm directly from YouTube interviews, not them speaking to each other but interviews, and wrote down the words very carefully,” Rush said. “And what you will hear in this case is the actual words of Martin and Malcolm.”

Following the performance, the three keynote speakers delivered their lectures, starting with Dr. Aletha Maybank, Chief Health Equity Officer and Senior Vice President of the American Medical Association (AMA). Maybank said Martin Luther King Jr.’s organizing helped create significant contributions to the health care system and overall state of health in the U.S. She said King published an article in The Nation in response to the federal government passing legislation to provide funds to build segregated hospitals in Southern states during John F. Kennedy’s presidency.

“(Martin Luther King Jr.) felt the President should do much more and actually stop grants from going to states that were not ensuring desegregated healthcare and (were not) stopping to deny care to Black patients,” Maybank said.

According to Maybank, Black physicians were often excluded from working in white hospitals during Martin Luther King Jr.’s time, in large part due to the AMA’s policies.

“(The AMA) was considered, and really still is the most powerful healthcare organization representing physicians,” Maybank said. “And so what happened at that time is that, in order to get hospital privileges, you actually had to be a member of the AMA, but the AMA didn’t prevent local affiliates from excluding Black physicians.”

Maybank said Title XI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act was crucial in addressing segregation in medicine, as it stated that any program receiving federal financial assistance could not exclude or deny benefits to anyone based on race, color or national origin. Maybank added that the creation of Medicaid and Medicare brought federal funding into every medical institution in the country, leading to further desegregation of the industry. While, as Maybank said, the AMA did not take the necessary steps to promote desegregation, the advocacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and the National Medical Association, which consists of Black physicians, pushed health equality forward.

“(People) typically question why I am at the AMA with this racist history in their practices and their policies,” Maybank said. “So I’d be remiss not to talk about that … I operate out of a sense of love — love for myself, my family, my community (and) my ancestors, and I fully believe in inside outside strategies, covert and overt strategies in order to create change for social justice … (working for the AMA) was an opportunity to leverage the (organization’s power) for racial justice at a national level.”

Maybank went on to say the AMA has made progress through its actions, such as by issuing an apology in 2008 for excluding Black doctors and removing an exhibit celebrating the father of the AMA, who played a key role in this exclusion. She said though there has been a greater emphasis on health equity in recent years — in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter Movement — more work is needed.

“We’re still in a very segregated healthcare system,” Maybank said. “It’s illegal, but we’re still in a very sad, segregated health system.”

The next keynote speaker was Edward Buckles Jr., director of the documentary “Katrina Babies,” a documentary detailing Hurricane Katrina’s impact on young people in New Orleans. Buckles grew up in New Orleans and was 13 when Hurricane Katrina struck, forcing his family to evacuate. 

“Dr. King taught me the ways in which real change comes at a cost and how we can only change our realities if we begin to examine their origins,” Buckles said. “In 2014, I began what became a seven year journey for my directorial debut, Katrina Babies, a documentary offering an intimate look at the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and its impact on the youth of New Orleans.”

Buckles said during his time as a high school teacher, he started to make connections between the trauma his students experienced and the behavioral issues many of them presented. He said making this connection changed the way he interacted with his students, causing him to approach teaching through the lens of trauma.

“In addition to the traumas we’ve carried by just being Black in New Orleans and Black in America, our collective trauma was Hurricane Katrina,” Buckles said. “No one had ever asked us how we were doing or how this storm had impacted us. So I did. My approach was filmmaking. I use my camera as a tool and a weapon to elevate the role of forgotten voices of the storm.”

Buckles said since hurricanes were common in New Orleans, he didn’t realize the significance of Hurricane Katrina until he was sitting in a shelter with his family in the aftermath. As he watched the news, Buckles said he realized the role racism played in the impact of the disaster. 

“Those who have pleaded for help from their roofs, bodies both dead and alive in the high streets by the inhumane circumstances … all happened to be Black people,” Buckles said. “And I looked around the shelter. It was all Black people around me sitting on the horn floors trying to pick up the pieces of their lives that (were) just washed away. If I hadn’t known what racism looked like before, I definitely knew then.”

According to Buckles, these natural disasters only exacerbate the inequalities that already exist, and that New Orleans has been disproportionately impacted by poverty, unlivable wages, trauma, environmental racism and lack of access to healthy food. 

“In the spirit of Dr. King’s philosophy, Katrina Babies shines a light on the conditions that cause violence … because as he demonstrated throughout his work, in order to see a change in our communities, we must first eliminate the systemic hate, evil and violence that breeds it,” Buckles said.

The final keynote speaker was Jalen Rose, former U-M and NBA basketball player. After retiring from basketball, Rose founded the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy (JRLA), an open-enrollment, tuition-free public charter high school in Northwest Detroit. Rose said he established the school to help address continuing educational inequality in the U.S. 

“To this day, all students do not have access to a quality education,” Rose said. “Despite major strides towards educational equity, our country still faces an opportunity gap …the quality of your education should not be defined by your zip code … that’s the reason why, in 2011, I started the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy.”

Rose said JRLA follows a 9-16 model, meaning that students continue to be supported four years after high school graduation as they pursue college, trade school or military service. 

“I feel the eight most important years of a young person’s life are the four that they’re in high school and the four that they could be in college,” Rose said. “You ask any adult when their dreams went awry, (and) usually, it’s during that period.”

According to Rose, JRLA pushes students to pursue their goals and provide them with opportunities they might not have access to otherwise. In helping students reach success, Rose said he is forced to confront a sad truth about public education funding in the U.S. 

“When suburban public school students get more state funding than inner city public school students, that’s called segregation,” Rose said. “That’s called racism. It does exist, even if the laws have changed … and we’re here to bridge the education gap.” 

Rose’s remarks were followed by a brief panel discussion with all three keynote speakers, moderated by Dr. Earl Lewis, a professor of history, Afroamerican and African studies and public policy. The event was concluded by a performance of Vincent Bohanan’s song “We Win,” from the Detroit School of Arts Voices of Distinction, directed by Julian J. Goods. 

Business freshman Viveca Henry, who attended the keynote address, said the closing vocal performance was the most impactful moment of the event for her. 

“I was surprised,” Henry said. “I never really had an emotional reaction to songs … but it was a very nice way to tie up the end of the event, and just seeing a group of young people that just have so much life ahead of them … show Black pride and Black power was very moving.”

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