Kicking off the Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium, Marc Lamont Hill, host of HuffPost Live and BET News, delivered a keynote lecture to a full Hill Auditorium on Monday morning.
Hill spoke on King’s life and legacy in the context of current social conditions in the United States.
“Today, January 2015, presents a particularly interesting and compelling moment to think through: Dr. Martin Luther King’s life and legacy at a moment when his life and legacy has been hijacked by all sides, at a time where he has been transformed or reduced into a sort of revolutionary or multicultural action figure,” Hill said.
Hill described the present time in history as particularly interesting and compelling when the legacy of King is compared to that of President Barack Obama.
“War has become an instrument of foreign policy, rather than a last resort — this isn’t a motivational speech, clearly. But this is our reality as we enter this moment. What would King say about this?”
Hill said King’s idea of radical listening, a practice Hill sees as absent from a current age defined by “preoccupation with the self,” could “usher in a new possibility of justice.”
“The legacy of King would say we need to listen to more people, we need to listen for poor people,” he said. “We can’t just be compassionate by proxy — poor people need to be at the table.”
Hill said the U.S. is also missing a sense of unity and is inhibited by a lack of conversation surrounding issues important to others, but not necessarily a priority to ourselves. For example, Hill said people may be more concerned with educational reform compared to prison reform, since the former is an issue potentially more relevant to them.
Though King would not have argued for unanimity or for everyone to work together, Hill said King would have wanted everyone to take the first step of listening to one another.
To fully understand King’s desire for listening, Hill said, Americans must reconstruct conceptions of history.
“We remember King as the father of democracy and modern democracy, the patriarch of the Civil Rights Movement, the leader of empowered struggle … But the truth is Dr. King dies an enemy of the state. April 4th, 1968, People Magazine denies Dr. King’s entrance on its ‘Most Admired Americans’ list; the National Baptism Convention kicks King out,” he said.
Hill said recognizing this idea is critical for helping people realize what King sacrificed when he committed his life to “dangerous truth-telling.”
The latter part of the Hill’s speech covered points that relate closely to the recent controversial deaths of Black citizens, such as Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice.
“We’ve been reenacting the same ritual of Black people being killed for being young, Black and outside,” he said. “Instead of talking about driving while Black all the time, maybe we can talk about patrolling while racist.”
To prevent history from repeating itself, Hill said Americans need a greater sense of unity at the community level.
“To create a community that includes all of us, we need values of inclusion,” he said. “That means restorative justice must trump contributive justice. Justice doesn’t mean punishment.”
To conclude his lecture, Hill emphasized that for change to occur, citizens must make a plan and follow through by taking action.
“Dr. King said we must have an analysis, but we can’t succumb to, as Dr. King put it, the paralysis of analysis … What does that look like? It means we must act bravely. No one modeled brave action more than Martin King,” he said.
The crowd gave Hill a standing ovation at the conclusion of his speech.
In an e-mail interview with The Michigan Daily, Public Policy junior Julie Sarne said Hill’s lecture inspired students to move beyond the classroom and take action.
“As students at the University of Michigan, we learn about sweeping societal injustices in the past and present — yet so often, we stop there. Dr. Hill delivered a call to action, an imperative for us to ‘act bravely,’ ” Sarne said. “After all, Dr. King’s legacy demonstrates that ‘to act bravely is to work in the service of justice.’ ”
Rackham student Courtney McCluney, president of the Students of Color of Rackham, also wrote in an e-mail interview that Hill’s call to action resonated with her.
“Instead of glamorizing the positive messages of Dr. King’s life, (Hill) encouraged us to realize that to take action means that not everyone will agree with you, that you have to sometimes go against the norm, and that you must become a radical listener for change to occur.”