By Allana Akhtar, Daily Staff Reporter
Published January 19, 2015
Instead of attending classes Monday, University students and faculty honored the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. by hosting or attending various seminars and discussions to examine social justice in American society.
The School of Social Work hosted “Policing Black Bodies: A Dialogue on Poverty, Police Brutality and the Way Out” to reflect on King’s legacy in modern America. Writer Shaun Ossei Owusu, Assistant Prof. Kamau Rashid and Rackham student Finn Bell discussed how poverty, race and police brutality have changed throughout U.S. history.
“The historical configurations of race in the United States, within the context of slavery and colonialism, actually teaches us a great deal about the contemporary manifestations and expressions of racism today,” Rashid said. “Racism is both permanent and indestructible and I think that there’s a lot that we can learn from this.”
Rackham student Loren Cahill, who is in the School of Social Work, said the most notable part of the event was Rashid’s acknowledgement of racism’s permanency and inability to completely dissolve.
“I thought it was phenomenal,” she said. “I liked the discussion about still fighting to do racial work and to end profiling, still striving to improve it.
Bell spoke of his experience growing up white in the South and witnessing the racial discrimination his peers through an outside lens. He also warned white social workers not to fall prey to a savior complex that often leads to racist behaviors and mindsets.
“I think that it’s important to remember that, for me, I see myself in doing whatever work I do out of a fundamental self-interest,” Bell said. “I do that out of a way to try to reclaim my humanity.”
Owusu warned against the use of body cameras as a method for curbing police brutality. He said while it will increase accountability of the problem, it risks normalizing the behavior and desensitizing the community to violence.
He also lauded social media’s impact on bringing to light some of the injustice of police brutality and rallying support for victims of it.
“There’s a lot of talk about how online activism isn’t meaningful as opposed to traditional means of protest, but I think in conjunction to traditional protest, that’s what helped galvanize people in terms of Michael Brown and the Eric Garner killings,” Owusu said. “I think this is especially true when the media is sometimes uninterested in covering these stories or does it opportunistically.”
Several University learning communities sponsored the 28th annual “Circle of Unity” gathering, featuring musical performances and slam poetry to feature the literature and art that came out of the Civil Rights era.
Local artists Joe Reilly and Julie Beutel performed original compositions as well as spirituals from antebellum Black communities. The Michigan Gospel Chorale also performed the Black National Anthem.
At the end of the event, students stood at the podium to finish the statement “I have a dream…”
Rackham student Dan Green, also in the School of Social Work, was one of the event organizers, and said the University community should learn about the ideals and values Martin Luther King embodied.
“I think learning what his beliefs actually were is very important,” Green said. “It’s more than what you see in movies and on posters. There’s so much more to Dr. King that should be learned about.”
Green hoped the event inspired and challenged those in attendance to be the change they wish to see on campus.
“There’s a lot of work to be done,” he said. “Everyone needs to be a part in order to make that change happen.”
The Black Volunteer Network also hosted their annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day program for 21 high school students to discuss King’s leadership and the current state of activism, while encouraging them to apply to the University.
The day began with the students listening to the symposium’s keynote address, which this year was given by Marc Lamont Hill, host of HuffPost Live and BET News, as well as a political contributor to CNN.
Hevhynn Jackson, a senior at University High School Academy in Southfield, Mich., said Hill’s lecture inspired her to become more socially active.
“I thought his speech entirely was really amazing and really spoke to me about how I need to get active and if I want to see a change I have to start making the change,” Jackson said.
The BVN event also examined academic, social and professional life at the University, including information on financial aid and scholarship options.
LSA senior Asia Bond, who is the BVN’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day co-chair, said the point is to inform visiting students about the University and the application process.
“We just want to give them the opportunity to come to Michigan seeing what it’s like, seeing that it’s not that far from home but you can still attend this University. And to meet us most of all, to get that one-on-one experience, that’s having someone who can be a mentor somewhat,” Bond said.
Immediately following the keynote,Honors College residential assistants hosted their sixth annual peer-group discussion.
LSA senior Colin McWatters, an event organizer, said the goal of the discussion was to discuss the influence of recent nationwide social movements on student lives, including those against police brutality and for statewide same-sex marriage recognition.
“It’s important to focus on the impact of the problems, so we’re not just having conversations for five or 10 years and so we’re actually doing something,” McWatters said.
Students discussed how social justice could be used to build a more tolerant and diverse community for all different types of individuals.
LSA sophomore Matt Sehrsweeney spoke of his perspective on the fight for social justice as a straight white male. He said it really “hit home” when he saw 1,000 students rally to call for the firing of former Athletic Director Dave Brandon, yet only 200 students participate in the die-in to protest police brutality in December.
“If I wanted to I could ignore those issues and I could be fine my whole life, but so many people can’t,” he said.
Rackham student Channing Mathews told the group how her friend heard white students mock students and the event during the die-in. Though Mathews spoke of some of the discouragement she felt after hearing about the encounter, she said by speaking to other like-minded individuals, including Sehrsweeney, she feels more hopeful.
"Even listening to Matt just made me feel a lot better than I've felt in the past eight months," she said, turning to Sehrsweeney.
Other events to celebrate the life and teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr. included a brief history of the Chicago Freedom Schools; Y(OUR) Story, an opportunity for students and faculty to share their stories through performing poetry, art or music; a panel of history students and faculty discussing the history of race and social justice; a lecture on the racial disparities in health care; a discussion on feminist and activist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel “Americanah,” and speeches from the grandson of Nelson Mandela, Ndaba Mandela, Law School Prof. Martha S. Jones and Def Jam poet Black Ice.
The University’s MLK Symposium hosts a variety of social justice themed events throughout the month.
Upcoming events include a spoken word performance through First Wave Hip Hop and Urban Arts Learning Community, the annual South Asian Aware Network’s Threads symposium, a lecture given by University regent and dermatologist Shauna Ryder-Diggs and a lecture by acclaimed journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates scheduled for Wednesday.
— Daily Staff Reporters Alyssa Brandon, Tanya Madhani, Genevieve Hummer and Anastassios Adamopoulos contributed reporting.