One day, two impacts. One audience, two speeches. One language, two messages.


Maja Tosic

This past Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a day meant to honor unity and togetherness, was a moment filled with divides born from our commonalities. The pivotal day turned into the backdrop for University President Mary Sue Coleman and members of the Black Student Union to share their separate proclamations. Their intimately tied and uniquely distinct messages created an important juxtaposition that needs to be examined. The differences between the two span beyond the order of their words.

One voice made promises. The ability to make promises to others carries much power and agency.

The other made demands. Demands echo a history of being unheard and misrepresented.

One speaker simply had to approach the podium and be welcomed by an applauding audience. Her voice was soft into the microphone, but it was amplified instantly for hundreds of ears to hear.

The other speakers had to take command of a space that routinely excluded them. They had to create a stage of their own. They had to shout over others to be heard. They had to captivate the audience to be recognized.

One act was a welcomed speech.

And the other was seen as a disturbance.

One voice is the epitome of power and authority.

The other is systematically silenced.

One is white.

The other is Black. Dark as the fierce night and light as the blinding day.

One voice was wholeheartedly respected.

The other was misconstrued and misrepresented.

Despite their divides, both voices strategically chose MLK Day as the important moment to unveil their messages. But they chose the same day for very different reasons. MLK Day is a time of reflection, a pause in our lives to compare the past to the present. Both groups — the administration and the BSU students — chose this moment of reflection because it primed their audience and strengthened their messages. However, the spirit and story of King was pulled into different directions by the two.

One took MLK Day and the spirit to champion his legacy and to prove how far the University has come.

The other took the essence of King and came to embody his rebellious and truth-seeking nature.

One used King’s legacy as a marker of progress and success.

The other looked back onto King to portray how little has changed.

Perhaps one message washed us in more hard-to-believe tales.

And perhaps the other voice fought to restore sight to those who are blind.

So, where does the truth lie?

Perhaps it lies in the messages and responses. Coleman spoke about the changes the administration vows to take. She listed three separate and immediate steps that are solutions to the concerns students of color and the BSU have raised. She said the BSU students have been heard. But have they? Or has their threat to the Victors Campaign and to her own legacy been heard?

In response to the BSU students’ demonstration, some members of the administration met with students this past Friday to discuss future steps. The students left feeling hopeful, and maybe the administration left feeling relieved. But the past tells us to be cautious in believing that the University will listen to students seeking more diversity and inclusivity. The University has consistently shied away from complying with student demands and creating a truly inclusive community. Only time will tell how much the students have been heard. Then we will know where the truth lies.

Maja Tosic can be reached at tosimaj@umich.edu

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