On the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech, speakers called for a greater awareness of the university’s role in addressing racism in the United States in a series of events hosted by the Program on Justice and Peace and the Center for Social Justice.
Sponsored by the Office of the President’s Let Freedom Ring initiative and co-sponsored by the Office of the Provost and the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship, the daylong April 4 program featured speakers involved in organizing the civil rights movements of the 1960s and ’70s and today.
In afternoon presentations in the Healey Family Student Center and an evening panel in Lohrfink Auditorium, speakers centered on the imperative to depart from the evils of society King identified in his speech, including war and racism, to achieve social transformation.
André Keet, director of the Institute for Reconciliation and Social Justice at the University of the Free State in South Africa, said Georgetown is complicit in the “giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism.” In examining the relationship between student activism at U.S. universities and at South African universities, he said a goal for universities must be to diversify curricula.
“Higher education as an institution is complicit in producing the challenges we are facing today,” Keet said. “Scholars have identified a number of common themes across the globe. One: This generation of students is profoundly disillusioned with the democratic processes at play in our respective countries. Two: They are angry with neoliberalism’s capture of higher education and the consequences of fees and increasing inequality. And three: They are critical of the ways in which Eurocentric, white, middle-class culture is unquestionably the norm in universities.”
Keet said Georgetown’s implementation of the recommendations made by the Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation will be telling of its commitment to social justice. University President John J. DeGioia established the working group in August 2015 in an effort to address the university’s benefit from the sale of 272 slaves to a Louisiana plantation in 1838.
DeGioia announced Sept. 1 the university would provide legacy status in the admissions process to descendants of the 272. The university will also rename Freedom and Remembrance Halls on April 18 as Isaac Hawkins Hall — after the first enslaved person named in records of the 1838 sale — and Anne Marie Becraft Hall — after a Catholic sister and educator in the Georgetown neighborhood during the 19th century.
In a discussion between civil rights activists and Black Lives Matter activists on historical lessons for activists today, panelists stressed the importance of grassroots organization in their communities.
“Two years from now will be the 400th anniversary of the first slaves brought to British North America, and for just as long there’s been resistance to those institutions and to the broader structures of white supremacy that define our society,” justice and peace studies and philosophy professor Mark Lance, one of the event organizers, said in an introduction of the panel.
Associate professor of history Marcia Chatelain moderated the discussion, which featured civil rights activists Mandy Carter, Sekou Mgobozi Abdullah Odinga and Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons. The panelists spoke on the lessons they value from their experiences as lifelong organizers.
Carter, a black lesbian social justice activist and 2005 Nobel Peace Prize nominee, discouraged modern activists from misremembering civil rights activism and the messages in “Beyond Vietnam,” which included the struggle for economic justice.
“One of the things he was working on last before he got assassinated was called the ‘Poor People’s Campaign’,” Carter said. “That speech can be so relevant to where we are today. One of the points he’s making is that with all the struggles that went on about the right to sit at that lunch table, a question: When you got up there, did you have any money in your pocket to buy anything?”
Black Lives Matter activists Anthony Grimes, David Ragland, April Goggans and Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou offered advice to students interested in organizing in the ongoing struggle for social justice.
“Don’t shame each other and don’t have purity tests for who can do the work,” Sekou said. “Don’t shame. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Do your homework.”
The speakers encouraged Georgetown students to examine the institutions in which students are complicit. Goggans noted that being educated at Georgetown University is a privilege, and called for students to engage with the disparities the city of Washington, D.C., faces.
“In this city you have every intersection, every issue you can ever dream of,” Goggan said. “We’ve got to expand our understanding of what this moment demands from us. And how far are you really willing to go? Have you thought about how expansive your personal power is? That is the moment that we’re in.”