Section: News

Dr. Gretchen Sorin delivers MLK keynote

On Monday, Jan. 17, Kenyon celebrated its annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Dialogue with virtual programming hosted by the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (ODEI). Dr. Gretchen Sorin, director of the Cooperstown Graduate Program in museum studies and author of the 2020 book Driving While Black: African American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights, delivered the keynote address. The presentation, titled “African Americans, Mobility, and Freedom,” drew on themes of mobility and freedom.

President Sean Decatur introduced Sorin by highlighting her successes, which include being a finalist for the 2021 National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) image award in nonfiction and a Silver Gavel Award from the American Bar Association for a documentary adaptation of Driving While Black

Sorin began her presentation with an excerpt from King’s oft-quoted “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” before moving on to discuss the civil rights movement through the lens of mobility. From the time enslaved Africans stepped foot in the New World, Sorin said, they had limited mobility. In the period after slavery was abolished, African Americans had more, albeit limited, freedom to move around. African Americans’ desire for freedom of movement led to the mass consumption of cars during the Great Migration. To some African Americans, the acquisition of an automobile was a measure of success. It signified that you had some level of economic stability and a good job. “A fine car was a way to show everyone that you had made it,” Sorin said. 

While cars made it possible for African Americans to achieve the freedom of mobility, Sorin stressed the idea that the landscape of segregation meant they were not always safe in the places they were traveling. For example, “sundown towns” are places where African Americans could work during the day, but were forced to vacate by the evening to maintain their safety. The legacy of these towns is still alive today. To avoid any trouble, many African Americans stuck to highways rather than risk going through smaller towns. However, even the roads they traveled on carried a legacy of racism, as highways were constructed through communities with high African American populations, destroying homes and displacing residents. 

As a solution to these travel woes, a man named Victor Green published The Negro Motorist Green Book, a guide book that listed safe towns and establishments for African Americans on the road. Green hoped that one day African Americans would no longer need the sanctuary provided by the book. “Victor Green felt that if middle-class African Americans could go out on the road and meet white Americans, it would convince them that African Americans were just like them,” Sorin said. 

Automobiles facilitated the transportation and communication that gave life to the civil rights movement. Sorin reckons that without the automobile, “there could have been no civil rights movement at the time.” 

Sorin ended her speech with another line from King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” reading, “we know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” Sorin suggests that the message envisions a future in which racial prejudice is eliminated, and she spoke about how the words resonate with us today just as they did in 1963.


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