King touches on individual action, father's legacy in MLK Week keynote

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King touches on individual action, father’s legacy in MLK Week keynote

MLK statue
Bernice King, Martin Luther King Jr.'s daughter, delivered the University of Nebraska–Lincoln's 2021 MLK Week keynote address on Jan. 28.

The capstone of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Week was held Jan. 28 and featured a keynote presentation from Bernice King, daughter of MLK and chief executive officer of the King Center.

Bernice King

In a Q&A discussion moderated by Nkenge Friday, assistant vice chancellor for strategic initiatives in the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, King spoke about the university’s role in achieving social justice and equity for all; how individuals can be ambassadors for equity, justice and inclusion; calling out injustices without stripping others of their humanity; and her father’s enduring legacy of nonviolent action.

Friday centered the virtual discussion with King on the impacts that can be made by the university, its students and Nebraska as a whole. King spoke about how research universities have a role to play in re-educating the American public about the collective past of racism and prejudice.

“I think one of the critical places to start is extending the research past what you know is traditionally relied upon,” King said. “When we do research, when we look at the history of the United States of America from a racial and equity lens. There are so many new thought leaders and voices on the subject.

“We have to re-educate people. There’s been a mass miseducation in the United States of America. And that’s not just confined to the white community. That’s all communities. There’s a lot of missing information. There’s a lot of falsity and lies and half-truths, and we would do ourselves a disservice if we continue to move forward and not engage in that massive re-education. Land-grant institutions like the University of Nebraska and others can play a very critical role in that.”

VIDEO: Nadia Williams reads an excerpt from “King Hedley II” by August Wilson

King also touched on recent events, including the Jan. 6 attack on the United States Capitol, and what can be learned, specifically about how to engage with others even if they have differing views. King said all people have a tendency to become defensive in the face of dissenting views and are quick to shut down that discourse.

“We need to change our approach to how we look at people and engage in these conversations,” King said. “We have a tendency to draw a line in the sand when people are either offensive or they have different ways of thinking. We have this cancel culture; when we disagree vehemently, we cancel you.

“One thing I want to hone in on is (that) when you’re talking about these conversations, seek first to understand than to be understood, and that’s hard… We’re always try to prove that you’re wrong and I’m right, as opposed to thinking about the beloved community. What happens is (that) you end up causing the person to let down their defenses.”

Friday and King discussed the legacies of King’s mother and father, and the progress that has been made toward MLK’s vision. King said there is much that has been accomplished but pointed out there is much to still do, including addressing rampant income inequality, especially among the Black community.

“The reality is, there’s only so much wealth within the Black community,” she said. “The reason that white corporate America is wealthy is because of us. We helped them unwillingly through slavery. That’s how they developed their wealth.”

King praised the youngest generations for their action, especially the galvanization to say “no more,” in protests in all 50 states over the summer, after George Floyd was killed by a police officer in Minnesota.

Friday also asked King how each individual can best help make a collective difference.

“I think there is a searching for something I can do that is new and different,” King said. “We got a lot of the answers, and we have a lot of things and ingredients that’s needed. We just got to connect, and individuals have to connect. Don’t try to create something new. Find something that fits your passion and connect with it.”

King reminded the audience that her father’s nonviolence was a tenet of everyday life, not just a tool for activism, and that others can emulate this.

“This is a love-centered way of thinking, acting and speaking,” she said. “That leads to social, cultural and personal transformation. Can I still get my point across without attacking your core? That’s hard. You can still resist people’s insults and still speak your truth, but you have to do it in a way that leaves even that person with dignity.”

The virtual gathering opened with messages from Marco Barker, vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion; Dawn Curry, associate professor of history; and Roni Miller, president of ASUN. Those were followed by a performance by Pamela Dillard, who performed “Three Dream Portraits” by African-American composer Margaret Bonds, who set the music to the poems of Langston Hughes.

VIDEO: "Three Dream Portraits," performed by Pamela Dillard, accompanied by Trey Clegg

The Chancellor’s Fulfilling the Dream Award winners were recognized by Chancellor Ronnie Green, and both awardees, campus winner Helen Fagan and community winner Leo Yankton, gave remarks.

Fagan, associate professor of practice in agricultural leadership, education and communication, drew on her own experience of prejudice as an Iranian-American and implored listeners to recognize their own biases and work to overcome them.

“The truth is, the bricks of injustice lie in the heart and mind of each of us,”she said. “We will not realize the dreams of Dr. King until we do this internal work. We begin to take down the bricks of systemic racism when we remove our ego, our fears and biases as the barrier to someone else’s success. Until we grapple with those bricks, we will struggle to create a workplace, school or community free of injustice.”

Yankton, a community leader and a member of the Oglala Lakota who advocates for indigenous people, spoke of his work to support his people on the Pine Ridge reservation and his humility in accepting the award.

“But in all good conscience, to accept an award like this, I would have to accept it, not thinking that I deserve it but thinking that I will earn this,” Yankton said. “I will keep continuing to make efforts to earn this for the rest of my life, because when I think of Martin Luther King, I think of him as someone who would probably be humble and also think that he didn’t need a bunch of accolades, but that he was doing work he was doing because it needed to be done, and because it was the right thing to do. And so I will continue to do the right thing, and I appreciate accepting this award.”

VIDEO: Brannon Evans reads an excerpt from “Fires in the Mirror” by Anna Deveare Smith

Students also contributed to the program. Brannon Evans recreated an interview with American playwright and journalist Thulani Davis from “Fires in the Mirror,” Anna Deveare Smith’s documentary, and Nadia Williams performed a monologue from August Wilson’s “King Hedley II.”

The event closed with a performance by Ron Himes, producing director for the St. Louis Black Repertory Theatre, and closing remarks by Charlie Foster, assistant vice chancellor for inclusive student excellence and director of OASIS.

Himes performed a monologue from James Baldwin’s “Blues for Mister Charlie,” a play loosely based on the murder of Emmet Till.

VIDEO: Ron Himes reads an excerpt from “Blues For Mr. Charlie” by James Baldwin

The university’s MLK Week continues Jan. 29 with two events.

The first is a noon Zoom session, “Applying Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Teachings on Economic Justice.” The interactive experience will touch on economic justice and how to eliminate the opportunity gap. It will be led by University Career Services, the Combs Honor Scholars and the W.E.B. Du Bois Honor Society.

Also Jan. 29 is the Hate Will Never Win Mask Handout. Students can stop by the Jackie Gaughan Multicultural Center between noon and 5 p.m. to pick up “Hate Will Never Win” masks.

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