Nontombi Naomi Tutu, South African race and gender activist and daughter of archbishop Desmond Tutu, joined the ranks of renowned social activists who have delivered the University’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium keynote memorial lecture Monday afternoon. Addressing a packed audience at Hill Auditorium, Tutu charged the audience to hold themselves individually responsible for taking action against the injustices they see in the world.
The 30th annual Martin Luther King Jr. symposium, which featured multiple events across campus including Tutu’s keynote address, aimed to engage the University community in dialogues about King’s legacy. This year’s theme is #WhoWillBeNext, which seeks to prompt the campus community to consider both who will fall victim to and who will lead the escape from hatred in the world, according to the sympoisum’s website.
For Tutu however, this theme was problematic. She began her remarks by challenging it, criticizing the theme for highlighting the negative associated with Martin Luther King Jr. She said she was told by the University the theme would be in the context of both “who would be the next to lead?” in addition to “who would be the next to suffer the injustice of racism by being killed?”
Tutu said she prefers to focus on the positive potential of the future, instead encouraging audience members to take a more proactive approach to injustice, challenging them to consider themselves the next generation of social activist leaders.
“Maybe what we should be saying is ‘We are all next, and we refuse to allow anyone else to be next,” Tutu said.
Veering from praising only Martin Luther King Jr., she emphasized instead that like all great leaders, King was no different from any person sitting in the audience.
“Who will be next is asking you what is it that you see that others may not,” she said. “What is it that you hear that others may be ignoring? The world doesn’t need the next Martin Luther King Jr. The world needs the next you.”
Speaking to recent police shootings of unarmed Black men and deaths of Black individuals in police custody, Tutu said the first step in achieving social justice is acknowledging injustice. She referred to Tamir Rice, who was shot by police officers in Cleveland, Ohio who mistook his toy gun for a real one.
“We start in recognizing that it is not right that a twelve year old can be playing in a playground and thirty seconds later he is dead,” she said. “It is not right that a young woman is stopped at a traffic stop, and a few days later is dead. It is not right. It is not right that children in Syria live in fear.”
Tutu said making social and political improvements that work to combat these instances of injustice does not require a global platform. The contributions individuals make on a smaller, local level are equally as impactful, she said.
“We are not all going to be Nobel Peace Prize winners. Believe me, I know because I’ve been nominated about 15 times,” Tutu said. “We can all be community peace activists.”
Tutu also acknowledged what she called the hugely overwhelming feeling individuals experience when aiming to address issues of injustice society.
“We see all these things that are not right. And it’s easy to look at all those things and feel overwhelmed,” she said. “But if we look at all of those who when the question was asked during their lives, “who will be next” If we look at those who stepped up, we will see that they didn’t let the extent of the problem to overwhelm them.”
Despite hearing accounts of extreme injustice in the media regularly, Tutu said she is encouraged by the grassroots activism that has formed as a result.
“I hold on to hope by the skin of teeth and I’m able to hold on to hope because I see so many not waiting to be asked who will be next,” she said. “I see so many being courageous enough to put out their hands to those who will dehumanize them. I see so many who say I know our world can be better. And here where I am is where I will make a difference.”
Tutu ended her remarks with a challenge.
“I stand here as one who knows that injustice can be turned to justice, who knows that oppression that can be moved to freedom, who knows hate can be conquered by love,” Tutu said. “And I stand here asking each one of you, please, will you be next?”
After Tutu’s remarks Robert Sellers, Vice Provost for Equity, Inclusion, and Academic Affairs, stressed #WhoWillBeNext is also about reflecting upon the far reaching effects of individual acts of injustice.
“If you replace the picture of Dr. King with Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, or the kids, children and people of Flint, who will be next means something quite different,” he said. “It’s a clear warning that if one of us is not safe, then none of us are safe. It is a clear warning that injustice for even one of us means there is no justice for any of us.”
In University President Mark Schlissel’s opening remarks at the address, he said the symposium serves as a chance for the University community to come together and reflect on racial issues.
“Our University is a place where traditions live and thrive with influence that spans decades, unites generations, and enlightens our nation,” Schlissel said. “This symposium is one such tradition at the University of Michigan. It gives us the cherished opportunity to come together as a community to discuss important ideas and issues regarding race, inclusion and justice and embrace the core of our nation to serve society.”
The event also featured a choral performance from the Men’s Glee Club, who sang a tribute to the innocent young lives taken as a result of police brutality called “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed,” arranged by composer Joel Thompson.
The group also performed “Glory” which was arranged by popular artists Common and John Legend. The song was featured in the critically acclaimed film Selma, a chronicle of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s struggle to gain the right to vote for Black Americans.
Before beginning her lecture, Tutu praised the Glee Club for their performance, saying it caused her to feel a range of emotions. After their performance, Tutu joked, “I now know the meaning of cruel and unusual punishment, and that is to follow your University Men’s Glee Club!”
In an interview with the Daily after the event, LSA sophomore Amber Browder said she felt a close connection to Tutu during her lecture.
“What she was saying really hit home for me because I have younger siblings who will one day be adult black males,” she said. “When she was talking, I felt like I was just having a one on one conversation with her. She made me feel like she was talking to me directly.”
School of Music, Theatre & Dance senior Marcus Peterson, who was a soloist in the Glee Club’s performance, said Tutu’s remarks encouraged him to further pursue his career in vocal performance.
“It makes me want to pursue my career even further seeing that there aren’t many opera singers of my color out there in the world,” he said. “This has made me want to go even further and reach the whole world.”
Jacob Belardo, LSA freshman and Glee Club member, said he was affected by Tutu’s cadence and language as well as her emphasis on personal accountability and potential.
“The way she spoke – you listen to every word she said. It was like poetry,” Belardo said. “I liked that she emphasized that we’re all human beings and that we all came from a space where we’re equal, but we all have the opportunity to change things – even if it’s just here, even if it’s just going onstage and singing a song.”
Glee club performer Michael Chrzan, a senior in both LSA and the School of Education, said the emotionally charged content of the group’s repertoire brought him to tears on stage.
“For me, as someone who identifies as an African American male, it’s always emotional,” Chrzan said. He added, “I know people that could be these people… and so every time we sing it I think of that and it gets to me, but I also center on the idea that this is a message that we need to get out.”