By Robert M. Sellers
Vice Provost for Equity & Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer
Each year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I take a few moments to reflect on the life-altering work of a man whose legacy continues to inspire, while reminding us that this work is incomplete, and requires all of us to overcome the challenges still facing us today.
This year’s theme for the University of Michigan’s annual MLK symposium is where do we go from here? In many ways, it is quite appropriate to our current times. 2020 was one of the most challenging years in recent memory. We have endured a global pandemic, a racial reckoning, as well as the most divisive presidential campaign and election in memory.
All of these events have laid bare the many societal inequities that Dr. King preached about, wrote about, marched and sacrificed his life to illuminate, and to eliminate, more than 50 years ago.
We as a nation are clearly at a crossroads. We must decide where to go from here. The events of the first week in 2021 provide in stark relief two very different paths that we can choose to pursue.
One path that we can choose to pursue is the example of the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6. An alternative path that we can choose to take is best exemplified by the senatorial elections in Georgia that concluded just the day before. The difference that I point out about these two paths has little to do with the political parties involved. The point of the comparison is much deeper and more important than political affiliation. In reality, both the riot at the Capitol and the senatorial elections in Georgia had a lot in common with each other.
Both events represented “movements” of individuals whose actions were motivated by their sincere belief that they were robbed of their voting power by their government. Both movements had reached a tipping point where they felt like something had to be done now, at this moment, to right this injustice. Both movements were highly charged emotionally and linked to core fundamental values. And finally, both movements adeptly used social media to energize their participants and to coordinate their activities.
However, there were key differences between these movements as well. The differences had everything to do with the world-views that underlay the movements and thus are instructive of pathways that will lead to two very different futures.
The riot at the Capitol was the culmination of a year-long campaign by a leader that said that the only way that he (and thus, they) could lose the Presidential election was if they were cheated by some national conspiracy within the government. Since the leader lost the election, the argument was that they must have been cheated and the conspiracy must exist, regardless of any evidence to the contrary.
The focus of the movement was born from a personal grievance and sense of entitlement from both the leaders and those within the movement.
That sense of entitlement was based on the belief that the majority should rule and that they are inherently the majority and they must inherently rule. Any other outcome, in their mind, is illegitimate by definition.
In contrast, the movement in Georgia was based on a very different worldview. A worldview that is centuries old, that has been handed down from generation to generation based on 400 years of oppression and 200- plus years of legal disenfranchisement. A worldview that says that one will not always get what one pays for, but one will always have to pay for what one gets. They knew that the only way that they could win the election was if they overcame the documented systemic efforts to suppress their votes – and the only way to do that would be through grass-roots organizing, legal strategizing, and just plain hard work.
Despite a keen awareness of the long history of past injustices, they still believed that the system was redeemable. They believed that their only hope for success was to overcome these system inequities through faith, dedication and perseverance.
As a country and a university, there are several good lessons for us to learn from what happened in Georgia.
First – we must have faith that we have the power to make a difference. Cynicism, no matter how justified, will never lead to significant social change.
Second – we must build on the strong foundations for change that have already been laid by those agents of change who came before us. The election victory was the culmination of the work of people like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Sr., John Lewis, Diane Nash, Fannie Lou Hamer and so, so many unnamed others who have fought and (in too many cases) died over the decades for African Americans to have the right and opportunity to vote.
Third – while we must honor our elders and utilize their hard-earned wisdom, we must also harness and include the voices and perspectives of the younger generation to find new ways to do old things.
If we do these things, if we learn from these lessons, I am confident that we can meet the challenges that we face both as a nation and as a university community.
The question is, where do we go from here?