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January 22, 2015

MLK symposium explores how to become a just community

Marc Lamont Hill

Marc Lamont Hill

How can the country continue the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.? By listening to each other, connecting with other groups and taking action together, Marc Lamont Hill said at Pitt’s Martin Luther King Jr. Social Justice Symposium Jan. 16.

Hill is a distinguished professor of African American studies at Morehouse College as well as a journalist who hosts television’s HuffPost Live and Black Entertainment Television News and contributes to CNN broadcasts. He spoke on the theme, “Becoming a Just Community.”

He began by saying that while killings by law enforcement of unarmed black men, such as the shooting of Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer, had been dominating the news in the past few months, not all news about race in America today is bad. “There is an extraordinary opportunity for us to celebrate,” he said. “We’re in the age of Obama. In November 2008, America was able to realize a century-long project … of reform.” Fifty-four years beyond Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision that termed segregation of public schools to be separate but unequal, and 43 years after the voting rights act gave federal backing to blacks’ right to vote, “one of their children became a leader of the most powerful empire in history,” Hill said.

“It is a signpost that we just might live in a country that doesn’t just grow old, it grows up. Trouble is, that ain’t the whole story. … We lose sight of the fact that this justice is still being denied.”

Access to public housing is shrinking, he pointed out, while the homeless population is rising. And nearly two of five children in America go to bed hungry at night. K-12 education budgets are being slashed. While the black middle class has expanded, there still is an “immovable group of folks” who remain impoverished, he said. Poorer urban neighborhoods are food deserts, without fresh food available nearby, and America has “a labor market that continues to deny access to people who are black and brown and continues to deny equal wages for women.

“We are building first-class prisons and second-class schools,” he said. “And I ain’t even got to Ferguson yet.”


“The legacy of King tries to usher us into a new level of understanding of these issues,” Hill continued, first “by modeling a deep ethic of listening. What’s the black national anthem? ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing.’” Its message? “All of us need to have a voice that is heard, a voice that is understood, a voice that is recognized as fully human. King understood that. We live in a world that doesn’t understand that.” Today, he noted, “You can run for president without mentioning the poor.”

On King’s last birthday, Hill said, he met with sanitation workers looking for better treatment and wages, Chicano activists, civil rights activists and anti-Vietnam War activists. “King understood that a socially just community is one that builds coalitions across differences,” Hill said. “He understood that we are better as a nation if we are connected.”

He added, “It also makes good sense when we’re locked not merely at the arm but at the circumstance.”

We can’t have a socially just country, he said, if lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are marginalized, if black men can’t get into Pitt or graduate, or if women feel terrorized by the male patriarchy in this country.

“The legacy of King, the legacy of the black freedom struggle, is getting America to listen to itself.”

He said black thinkers and writers such as W.E.B. DuBois and David Walker in his “Appeal” are saying, “America, listen to yourself … the Negro remains unfree.

“They are pointing out the fundamental contradiction between what America’s articulated promise is and what it looks like on the ground.”

Contradictions in American thinking about black people have run throughout our history, Hill said. Though Thomas Jefferson had written that it wasn’t even possible for blacks to read and write, America still instituted laws to prevent blacks from acquiring education. Blacks are lazy — make them slaves, America said. Blacks are dirty — let them clean our houses. Blacks are uncivilized — ask them to raise our children.

“America, listen to yourself,” Hill repeated.

While “liberal multiculturalism” has reduced King’s most famous speech to a dream that one day his children will be equal to others, the beginning of the speech asks America to live up to its promise:

“In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check,” King said. “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir … It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’”

“The legacy of King,” Hill said, “is to get America to listen to its democratic promise.”


“A community of justice doesn’t just listen, though,” Hill said. “A community of justice has a sense of history.”

Barack Obama was first nominated as the Democratic presidential candidate on Aug. 28, 2008, exactly 45 years after King offered his most celebrated oratory on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. “It’s a fascinating story. It’s a beautiful story. But sadly, it’s an incomplete story.”

Hill said, “In America, we love to remember stuff, at the very same time that we love to forget. … We altogether erase the most painful memories from our collective minds.” That very same date, Aug. 28, in 1955 was the date when Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black teen visiting relatives in Mississippi, was kidnapped and killed for supposedly flirting with a white woman. “That doesn’t fit the neat narrative of American progress,” Hill said. And Aug. 28, 2005, was the height of Hurricane Katrina, when “a whole community was washed away and forgotten,” he said.

“There’s a kind of reductivist impulse we have nowadays that makes it difficult to have a racial conversation,” Hill noted. But “we must ask different questions.”

Instead of studying “driving while black” — the fact that black drivers are pulled over by police disproportionately compared to white drivers — “imagine if we shifted the unit of analysis to talk about ‘patrolling while prejudiced.’” Instead of asking why black kids drop out of school, ask what pushes them out, he said. “We’ve criminalized the medical addiction to drugs. We’ve taken social problems and criminalized them.”

Instead, he said, “What kind of community response should we make to injustice?”


“To create the just community,” Hill concluded, “in the legacy of King, we’ve got to do something. We’ve got to act bravely. We’ve got to organize.”

And yet on recent visits to black colleges, he found that students were starting too many new activist groups. “I wonder if there is a way to connect our organizations. How can we connect our projects that make the world different?” He suggested that universities ought to require campus groups to hold one event each year with a group that doesn’t share its agenda, or even, ideally, its perspective. “Those collaborations create space to grow, create space for dialogue. And having students engage in issues outside the scope of their groups — we should all be talking about the campus rape issue. We should all be talking about homophobia.”

Of course, he added, “The biggest problem in the world today is that there are too many people who don’t do anything.

“The sad thing in this nation is that we know what to do and we don’t do it. We can mentor; we can teach. We can have food drives; we can heal people. The legacy of King is to have local groups connected to national action. If we want a community of justice, let’s commit to doing something, starting right here, today.”


Hill’s talk was followed by three breakout sessions, one in which Hill answered attendees’ questions, another in which Janard Pendleton, program manager for college and career readiness in Pittsburgh Public Schools, spoke about “The Weight of Micro-Aggressions,” and a third by two members of the Campus Women’s Organization, Sydney Garlick and Desta Gebregiorgis, on “Black Women’s Perspective on Law Enforcement.”

The Office of Cross Cultural and Leadership Development in the Division of Student Affairs sponsored the event, part of a week of activities celebrating the King holiday that included service projects and a town hall meeting with students.

—Marty Levine