As the featured speaker for Kennesaw State University’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. observance on Jan. 20, Cornel West said he didn’t come to present a “sanitized, deodorized” talk on the civil rights leader.
Instead, the scholar and author of critical books about race and democracy said he came to properly situate King in the context of his “examined life,” as a follower of Jesus and as a radical fighter for justice and freedom in the face of “crimes against humanity” like racism, war and poverty.
“We gon’ keep it funky tonight,” promised West, whose appearance before a standing-room audience at the Bobbie Bailey & Family Performance Center was presented by Kennesaw State’s African-American Student Alliance and the Office of Multicultural Student Retention at Kennesaw State.
West, the Class of 1943 University Professor at Princeton University, is the author of 19 books, most notably his classics, “Race Matters” and “Democracy Matters.” His recent books include a memoir, “Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud,” and a social commentary, “The Rich and the Rest of Us,” which he co-authored with broadcaster Tavis Smiley.
Before he finished his hour-long talk, West linked the nation’s Monday King birthday celebration to Barack Obama’s second presidential inauguration on the same day. He noted the announcement that the president would take the oath of office by swearing on King’s Bible.
“I hope and pray that [President Obama] knows what he’s doing — that this is not just a matter of presidential display and political calculation and that, as symbolized by that Bible, he comes to terms with Martin’s challenge.”
Not sidestepping controversy, West said King would not support the “new Jim Crow” of the criminal justice industrial complex that disproportionately imprisons black, brown and poor people, or the use of military drones to kill innocent people in Pakistan.
West positioned King and the civil rights movement he led within the long line of those who came before him and struggled against “200 years of slavery, 90 years of Jim Crow and Jane Crow and various forms of American terrorism.”
“We’re going to keep it real in the face of the superficial,” he said. “This Martin Luther King Day celebration is not about pageantry, but it is a matter of Martin’s witness, which comes from the prophetic fire of righteousness and indignation, like Jesus in the Temple.”
West remembered King and those he surrounded himself with as extraordinary human beings who understood the difference between justice and revenge.
“There is a message in the moral and spiritual high ground they took — a message for the world and for the Middle East,” he said. “When our precious Jewish brothers and sisters wrestle with our precious Palestinian brothers and sisters … When our Palestinian brothers and sisters run out of patience with being terrorized and traumatized, do they respond with counterterrorism? Or, do they try to deal with what Martin and the others were saying?”
Asking that question may make it seem like he’s naïve, West admitted. “Anytime you talk about justice in the face of might, it sounds naïve. Anytime you talk about love in a dark world, it sounds naïve. But it’s not a matter of naiveté. It’s about how many bodies you can put into place so you can begin to destabilize things in such a way that the powers that be have to come to terms with your concerns. That’s called a social movement. That’s what Martin did.”
As King and his colleagues built that social movement, they also began to raise their voices against what West called “the second crime against humanity — the corporate bombing of Vietnam, killing innocent folk.” It was a move that changed the trajectory of King’s life and struggle, West contends.
“They said, ‘Martin, that’s not your concern; you ought to be concerned for Negroes,’” West said of King’s many detractors. “Martin responded by affirming his belief as a freedom fighter and a human being that ‘every human being has the same value, whether they are in Georgia, Ethiopia, Vietnam, London or Argentina.’”
“When he came out with that magnificent speech on April 4, 1967, one year before he was assassinated, everybody turned against him,” West said, citing polls that showed 72 percent of Americans disapproved of King and 55 percent of black people disapproved of him, especially after he denounced the Vietnam War. “He became one of the FBI’s most dangerous people. He cut against the grain, like Jesus, and was willing to pay the price for it.”
In assessing King’s fight against poverty, which West called “the third crime against humanity,” the scholar said King connected his poor people’s campaign to the struggles of poor people around the world — another stance West says constituted a threat because it called into question “how so few people could have so much wealth at the top.”
“In 2013, we have the highest poverty level since 1961,” West said. “How can we talk about the legacy of Martin Luther King and not talk about the connection between wealth and inequality at home and militarism abroad. … That is the challenge. Martin set such a high standard and the tradition that produced him is getting weaker and weaker. Everything and everybody is for sale.”
West implored the largely student audience to avoid the pitfall of making the rule of money, status and position the focus of their attention.
“I’m not anti-rich; I’m anti-injustice. We have to be faithful to something bigger than success so we can use our success for something even bigger,” he concluded.
Students questioned West for half an hour before giving him a standing ovation.
“Dr. Cornel West was amazing!” said Khalfani Lawson, a senior political science major who introduced the speaker. “His speech was dynamic, informative, inspiring, and he left KSU with a new outlook on our responsibility within the community, having charged us to uphold principles Dr. King stood for.”
As part of the celebration, the Kennesaw State Gospel Choir also performed, prompting President Daniel S. Papp to laud the choir and its long-time director, Oral Moses, who recently retired after 29 years as professor of music and who returned only to lead the choir’s King Day performance.
Papp also thanked students who planned and participated in the celebration for their foresight in selecting West, whose talk he called “inspiring and thought-provoking.”
“As Kennesaw State looks forward to celebrating its 50th anniversary next fall,” said Papp, “we will continue to live Dr. King’s legacy as we strive to be one of the most welcoming, diverse and inclusive universities in the nation.”
Photos: Courtesy of David Caselli, Kennesaw State University