As part of its 25th annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Symposium, the University held a series of events featuring keynote speaker Shirley Sherrod and renowned professor and comedian Bertice Berry.
Each year the University hosts the largest Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebration in the country, according to the University’s Associate Vice Provost John Matlock.
In her keynote speech, Sherrod, a civil rights activist and former Georgia State Director of Rural Development for the United States Department of Agriculture, discussed her role in the civil rights movement among other topics. She also talked about her work as a student activist working with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and her resignation from the USDA after being accused in July of allegedly discriminating against white farmers.
Though the civil rights movement ended when African Americans gained liberties like the right to vote, Sherrod said there is still a lot of progress to be made.
“Back during the civil rights movement, all black people were in the same boat,” she said. “We all went through it, we all faced the discrimination and we could work together.”
While the issues currently plaguing the African American community are much different than they were in the past, Sherrod said people should still take the initiative to end injustice.
“Some of us have had the opportunity and therefore, we can live a better life,” she said. “But we have to always think about those who do not have (opportunities) and we have to do whatever we can, wherever we are, to make life better for all of us.”
Sherrod said it’s time for people to come together regardless of skin color and cooperate to enact change.
“We may be different colors, but when you pull the covers off, we are all just human beings who have the capacity to love, the capacity to work together, the capacity to make where we live the best place in the world,” she said.
LSA junior Justin Baerwolf, who attended the event, said, for him, the speech was a call to action, and inspired him to get involved in the greater University community.
“I thought she did a really good job of applying it to more than just the civil rights movement,” Baerwolf said. “I’m not really involved in a lot of student (organizations), and I’m going to go home and probably immediately work on building my college experience to be more than just about serving myself.”
At a separate event yesterday, Berry, a sociologist and author, discussed the power of King’s rhetoric to affect change. The reason King’s speeches were inspirational, Berry said, is that he would spend hours critically thinking about his words in order to deliver them effectively.
“It’s amazing to me that we don’t think about King as a great thinker, we think about him as a man of faith,” Berry said. “But have you ever read the letter from the Birmingham jail where he cites and crosses out and corrects his own stuff from his own mind? This is a thinker.”
Berry also spoke about the role of technology in today’s society. According to Berry, while the current generation may be more technologically advanced than their elders, younger people lack wisdom. Because of this, she said it is the job of the older generation to guide the younger generation.
“Some of us (elders) are so frustrated with you, but it is our job to go, ‘Yes, it should be your call to go forward faster than I can go, but not so fast,’” Berry said.
Engineering freshman Trebecca McDonald said Berry inspired her to think critically about her ideas and the importance of King’s message.
“I thought she did a really good job at trying to make us think and trying to open our minds, so we not only look at (King’s) speeches and memorize the words for how powerful they were, but to actually know that they had meaning and that they were a thought process,” McDonald said.
She said she thought Berry’s message will also help her in her learning process.
“It will impact (my studies) because it will help me to not take things at face value,” McDonald said. “Especially in the College of Engineering where you have to do problem solving and you have to kind of think outside of the box.”
In addition to Sherrod and Berry’s speeches, the symposium also featured several lectures and activities throughout the day, including performances on the Diag in an hour-long event titled “Circle of Unity.”
University alum Robin Goldberg, the event coordinator, said the festivities were developed so that students could engage in civil rights issues and talk about how they impact their future.
“The event is meant to give people and groups a chance to express their hopes for the future and discuss their experience of the civil rights movement,” Goldberg said.
The symposium also included a poetry slam titled “We the People.” The performance featured Ann Arbor native Angel Nafis, who discussed her experiences growing up as “an African American girl in a predominantly white society.” Actress Val Gray Ward also spoke at the event, narrating historical events and struggles in the civil rights movement.
“I definitely think that the arts are a way of impacting the community positively,” Ward said in an interview after the show.