three scholars having a discussion on a stage in front of an audience

Annual MLK Day lecture considers range of perspectives on activism

By

Emma Greguska

Two of the nation’s most respected scholars of race and politics visited Arizona State University’s Tempe campus Wednesday to participate in the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership’s third annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day lecture, “Citizenship and the African American Experience.”

The lecture is part of the school’s continued efforts to foster civic discourse, featuring a variety of public programming and dialogues.

School Director Paul Carrese welcomed a crowd of nearly 100 faculty, students and community members before introducing the invited speakers, Angela Dillard, the Richard A. Meisler Collegiate Professor of Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan, and Peter Myers, professor of political science and U.S. constitutional law at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

Carrese noted that earlier in the day, the scholars had visited with students and faculty on campus, where they had viewed the Civics Classics Collection at the recently remodeled Hayden Library. The collection is a collaboration between the library and the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership to build a body of rare books and manuscripts intended to support the school’s mission of civic education through use in classroom environments and public programming.

The collection includes copies of King’s first two books, “Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story” and “Strength to Love,” as well as a first edition of the autobiography of Frederick Douglass, another civil rights leader who was discussed at Wednesday evening’s lecture.

“The Martin Luther King books help to tell the story of political figure who had enormous influence, even though he was never elected to political office,” Carrese said.

The focus of the lecture was how “the civil rights movement was marked by an intellectual and ideological diversity that incorporated a wide range of perspectives in debates about the nature of citizenship and the ‘proper’ strategies for civil rights activism.”

In her introductory remarks, Dillard discussed some of the topics and figures she will explore in her forthcoming book, “Civil Rights Conservatism,” which she said highlights the extraordinary diversity in black political culture. Among those featured in her book are: James Meredith, the first African American admitted to the University of Mississippi, known for his opposition to affirmative action; Mildred Jefferson, the first African American woman to graduate from Harvard Medical School; and Joseph H. Jackson, whom Dillard called “one of the most influential civil rights activists you’ve probably never heard of,” notable for his denouncement of King and the demonstrations he employed.

Dillard’s book also addresses what she refers to as the problem with monumental history, wherein historical moments become so revered that facts become distorted.

“The (March on Washington) has been so broadly celebrated today that it’s easy to forget how divisive it was in 1963: 22% of the population had a favorable view of the march, while 63% of the population had an unfavorable view,” she said, adding that the efficacy of the march was even debated within the NAACP.

Myers began his address with a question he asks of students in his American political thought course: What is America’s birth year?

“Answers vary,” Myers said. “Some say 1776 or 1787. Some say 1492 or 1607. Some say 1865. Every once in a while, some say 1954. But to the best of my recollection, no one yet has said 1619. I expect that will change.”

Myers was referring to The New York Times’ 1619 Project, an ongoing endeavor that began in 2019, 400 years after the arrival of the first enslaved people in America from West Africa. The project means to reexamine the legacy of slavery in the United States.

The project was met with criticism in the form of a letter to The Times from a group of historians expressing their reservations about its intention “to offer a new version of American history in which slavery and white supremacy become the dominant organizing themes,” and The Times’ plan to make the project available to schools in the form of curriculums.

Carrese asked Dillard and Meyers what they thought of the project.

“I’m a huge fan,” Dillard said. “I love it because it’s public history. It was a project put together to be able to say that we want to harness professional historians and speak to a larger public, repair some of the damage that’s been done in the American educational system for how slavery is taught or not taught … but it also tells the lived experiences of the African Americans themselves.”

Later, during the audience question and answer session, an attendee asked whether Dillard and Myers agreed with the historians’ concerns that using The Times' project as curriculum in schools might obfuscate the more positive aspects that played a role in America’s founding.

“Our job as educators is to tell the truth as best and as honestly as we can understand it,” Myers said, and that means teaching opposing arguments and contradictions, as well.

For the past two centuries, Myers said, the two greatest advocates of justice and race relations have been Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr. In their speeches, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” and “I Have A Dream,” respectively, “both ask the questions: Who are the true sons of the fathers? Who are the legitimate offspring of the founders? They answer, not the slave owners and segregationists but the abolitionists and the integrationists.”

Other civil rights leaders felt differently about the founders, such as Malcom X. “How marginal was a figure like him,” Carrese asked, in his opinion that there was nothing of value in the Constitution for black leaders?

“The relationship of African American thinkers, artists, activists and leaders to the past is fraught,” Dillard said. They have to ask questions like, “Is this our past? Is there something usable there? Is there something about which we can be critical but still salvage something of value?

“There are a range of positions. Malcom X famously said you didn’t land on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock landed on you. It’s a clever, relatable quip but it’s a serious position to take to say that we are the people under that rock, this is not part of our own heritage. And it’s hard to find a figure whose relationship to the past isn’t contradictory.”

And King was no exception. He wrote sometimes about being the “good son” of the founders, Dillard said. “Other times, he said the dream has become a nightmare. … So one speech doesn’t define everything they have to say about a topic that is so complex and so deeply vexing.”

Top photo: School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership founding director Paul Carrese (left) moderates a discussion with Angela Dillard, a professor at the University of Michigan, and Peter Myers, professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, during the school's annual Martin Luther King Day lecture, Citizenship and the African American Experience, on Wednesday, Jan. 22, at Carson Ballroom. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now