By Graham Reid
Through academic addresses, personal narratives and panel discussions, Kenyon community members are spending this week examining the legacy of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
On Monday, a federal holiday that roughly coincides with King’s birthday, Rosse Hall played host to the week’s keystone event: a speech by Renee Romano, an associate professor of history at Oberlin College and the wife of Kenyon president Sean Decatur. Her address followed a speech by Decatur. Class schedules were adjusted in order to make it easier for students to attend the events.
In contrast to the typical nationally-recognized holiday, Chairwoman of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Dialogue Planning Committee Ivonne García, associate professor of English, envisioned the College’s recognition of King as “a day to get together and talk about issues that still remain to be dealt with.” García said she is excited about this longer format, hoping it can help create an “academic focus on the legacy of MLK with also a tie in with Kenyon and how students can think about these issues.”
Romano, whose speciality is 20th-century American history, focused on the varying interpretations of King’s legacy and that of the broader civil rights movement. She traced out the popular conception of King and the movement as a whole, a largely successful endeavor limited in scope to eliminating legal segregation in the South and correcting the disenfranchisement of Southern blacks. Politicians can universally get behind this “safe” version of King’s legacy as it ignores, through “selective amnesia,” King’s more radical views on economic issues and U.S. foreign policy, Romano said.
Romano explained that a fuller picture of King’s ideals reveals a focus on the problems of poverty, underscoring the March on Washington’s goals of jobs and freedom that are often overlooked in favor of the messages in King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Romano also talked about the extensive community organizing work crucial to the movement — work largely undertaken by women — emphasizing the dangers of putting too much focus on the role of King himself.
With an eye to modern politics, Romano looked at these broader themes in a modern context. Romano aimed to refute the idea of “color blindness,” which goes hand in hand with the notion that affirmative action is unnecessary and unfair. She cited major inequality along racial lines, bemoaning the disproportionate number of black men in American prisons along with racial income gaps, the de facto racial segregation of many public schools and the gap in quality that goes along with it.
Decatur spoke about his own feelings toward King and King’s vision for full life, including realization of individual potential, compassion for the concerns of others and spirituality. He expanded on these values, synthesizing King’s Christian ideas into a more secular veneer.
The event also included a student panel, which, along with a video featuring students and faculty, showcased feelings of members of the Kenyon community toward issues of privilege and economic inequality along with racial, sexual and religious identity.
Promotional materials for this year’s King Day events built on the theme “Drum Major for Justice,” a phrase that generated much criticism as an inscription on the King Memorial in Washington, D.C. The quote was paraphrased from a longer quote of King’s: “If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice; say that I was a drum major for peace; I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”
Its use in the context of King’s memorial was criticized by poet Maya Angelou, among others, for making King appear arrogant beyond his true meaning. The quotation has since been removed from the monument. García hopes that members of the Kenyon community will find, rather than this “completely wrong” interpretation of the quotation in its full context, King’s “beautiful notion” that humility and service are important beyond worldly recognition.