Mr. Keyante Eady’s presentation was sponsored by Black Book Lady with a generous gift from The Pittsburgh Foundation. You can click here to view it.
MLK Jr. Day Opening Remarks – January 18, 2021
By, Tahirah Walker
Thank you to the community of people standing for justice at Bethany College.
What I am about to say is specifically for you. It is an open letter of gratitude and recognition for your amazing patience and perseverance.
The theme I have asked our keynote speaker, Mr. Keyante Eady, to address for our MLK Jr. celebration night is reparation. Dr. King dedicated his life to the spiritual tradition of Christ following both when he was Michael King, his birth name, and when he became the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the name he chose and titles he earned. In that tradition reparation and repayment are covered in several contexts. There are reparation offerings prescribed throughout the books of Moses. There is the wisdom of Proverbs that cautions us “fools mock reparations (the making of amends for sin) but among the upright there is goodwill (favor).” There is the example of Zacchaeus who the Apostle Luke observed saying to Jesus “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
Most folks think of reparation as monetary benefits offered to people who have been financially impacted by crimes against humanity, negligence or willful wrongdoing. They think of slavery and Jim Crow laws. Of the stolen land we live on and make a living on. Of unlawful imprisonments and unfair disadvantages in the workplace.
We see this kind of reparation in the work of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. The organization states that “Since our first agreement with West Germany in 1952, more than $70 billion has been paid to more than 800,000 Holocaust victims. We negotiate knowing that no amount of money will give them back their youth, their health or those family members who were so cruelly murdered by the Nazis. However, our negotiations result in acknowledgement of their suffering for hundreds of thousands of survivors, many of whom also rely financially on these payments.”
These material claims are necessary and right. But the Claims Conference knows that one of the most important components of what they do is education. Education is reparation. Education is the commitment to never forgetting those who have been terrorized and marginalized. Education is committing to doing everything within institutional power to stop any further terrorizing or marginalization from occurring. Teaching and learning are acts of reparation that go high in the face of so many who have and are still going low.
Some may ask what this has to do with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who many know so well for discussing the content of one’s character being lifted above the color of one’s skin. I say to those people that Dr. King was familiar with both dreams and reality. He spoke of the spiritual and the physical realms. He understood how they overlapped and it is important for us to recall that he spoke of both the long arc of the moral universe and the work needed to bend it toward justice. This work was something his fellow activist and wife, Coretta Scott King, reminded us was necessary for each generation to keep doing to reclaim freedom.
Consider this 1967 speech MLK made saying “Now America must hear about its sins because we will never understand what is happening in this country today without understanding that we are now reaping the harvest of terrible evil planted by seeds centuries ago. Yes we were given emancipation but no land to make it meaningful. And you know what? At that same time, America was giving away millions of acres of land in the west and the midwest. It was said the nation was willing to undergird its white peasants from Europe with an economic floor. Yet it would not do it for those who had been in the land, brought here in chains for 244 years so emancipation for the negro was freedom to hunger.”
Many hunger still: the descendants of the people brought here in chains; members of the LGBTQIA+ communities; people Native to this land; poor people; people who are differently abled; people who immigrate to this land from countries deemed inferior; people whose gender identities are devalued; and especially people who find ourselves in the intersections of these many crossroads. This ongoing hunger is why I do this work. It is unimaginable to me to think that people might suggest this work is done for 6 figure salaries. It isn’t and I don’t have one. I do this work because I recognize hunger.
Dr. King recognized it too in so many of us. He took inspiration from people resisting the caste and outcast systems of India. He built coalitions with people of varying faiths. He championed the call for economic equity and justice. He helped realize the vision of his colleague and friend Bayard Rustin who is known as the architect of the 1963 March on Washington and was an openly gay man. At that march Dr. King delivered what would become his most legendary speech at the behest of a woman, his friend, whose voice defined gospel music in her native New Orleans and all the world over. Mahalia Jackson encouraged him “tell them about the dream, Martin” and he did just that. Dr. King was an inclusion pioneer.
Beloved, I, too, have a dream. My dream calls for Bethany College to engage in reparation. I am calling for action to do this with truth, reconciliation, and educational planning and programming that does not leave anyone here in hunger either figuratively or actually. We can do this. In fact, many people on this campus are already doing this. I want you to know I see you. You who buy snacks and drinks for students out of your own pockets. You who offer a listening ear when you have nothing else to give and you are exhausted from Zoom calls all day but you simply will not walk away from a student in need. You who pick up trash and clean rooms and wipe surfaces so that the effects of this pandemic on everyone but especially the higher rates of death for people of color might be averted. You who add meetings and grant writing to your duties because you care. You who revised your syllabi when you realized that your disciplinary canon was perpetuating exclusion through dominant patriarchal writers and researchers. You whose feminism is also womanism and intersectional. You who will not stand for discrimination, sexual assault, harassment, or violence of any kind. You who ask that leaders be accountable to the Bethany community on all these fronts. For how can we possibly celebrate Dr. King if we cover or tolerate hate or violence. I see you and I thank you for your justice work to bend that arc.
This kind of reparation must become our primary policy initiative before we can have true diversity, equity and inclusion. We must hire more staff and faculty and students of color. We must hold true to the promise of the Rooney Rule. We must demand that no student is ever subject to white supremacist power dynamics in our classrooms. We must refuse to recruit young men and women here to use their bodies on our fields and courts without also acknowledging that their minds and brilliance are how they are able to do this and that those minds are worthy of our support and nurturing. No matter how much of that we may think they didn’t get in high school. Guess what? I am just a girl from Newark NJ whose mother struggled to raise me with a low salary and big goals. I went to a fine high school in Montclair NJ and I still arrived at college with areas to improve. And for the rest of us who work here, you did too.
MLK got a C in his undergraduate Public Speaking course. Thank God no one said he didn’t belong. Thank God he didn’t give up on himself because of a made up evaluation done in 15 weeks. And while we still mourn that awful April day in 1968 when he was murdered, we rejoice in knowing he left us with a lifetime of inspiring speaking and thought and action. My mother gave me such a lifetime of inspiration as well. She also left me too soon but her mitochondria make my heart work and she placed there the undeniable truth that while climbing is my birthright, lifting is my sworn duty. Bethany, let us climb and lift. We can do this and we must. I speak not for founders and men gone by centuries ago but for Jada and Michael and Jalen and Sydnee and Majied and so many others who have come here with freedom in mind and heart. Like Keyante who will speak to you now.