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“I’m going to shake up things a bit,” said Frederick Harris, keynote speaker for Monday’s 14th annual Martin Luther King Jr. March and Celebratory Brunch held on the Ohio University campus.
While Harris spoke about the philosophy of non-violence of King, as well as the more militant positions of Malcolm X, Harris focused his comments on black author and activist James Baldwin rather than King.
“…Looking at what’s happening in American society, from the vantage point of 1963, I think James Baldwin has a lot more to say about what’s going on,” Harris said.
The title of his talk was “1963, James Baldwin and the House that Race Built.” Harris is a Columbia University professor of political science and director of the Center on African-American Politics and Society.
The year 1963 was a “cataclysmic moment” in the century-long struggle of African slaves and their descendants to gain dignity and human rights, Baldwin said, listing several events that occurred that year, including the killings of Medgar Evars and President John F. Kennedy, the March on Washington, the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., that killed four girls and the Birmingham protests to end segregation in public accommodations.
“The events of that year forced America to reckon with its past,” Harris said.
“Baldwin, standing between these two titans — nonviolence on one side and self-defense by any means necessary on the other side — saw limitations in Kings’ edict of love for the oppressor as well as Malcolm X’s condemnation of quote ‘white devils,’” Harris said. “Although King’s and Malcolm’s views shifted and in some regards converged in the later years of their lives, Baldwin, who lived long enough to witness change, he died in 1987 by the way, was steadfast in his belief that racism was endemic to American life.”
Harris said that Baldwin “never let up holding a mirror to America and reminding it that America is the house that race built.”
Harris said that as advancements of the past 50 years of the civil rights struggle are celebrated, inequalities still persist. He said public schools remain segregated, the wealth gap between the races has widened in the past decade, black unemployment hovers around 50 percent and the incarceration of nearly a million black people is “nothing less than a national scandal.” He also cited the 2013 rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court that weakened affirmative action and dismantled the enforcement powers of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Harris talked about the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin which “laid bare the remnants of the house that race built” and about the 2013 fatal shooting by police of Jonathan Ferrell, a 24-year-old unarmed black man who was shot while seeking help after a traffic accident.
“Looking from the perch of 1963, Baldwin speaks more to America’s current state of racial quagmire than the insight of either King or Malcolm X,” Harris said. “In essence Baldwin is asking white America to lie back on the couch and ponder why they have not embraced the stranger who they have maligned for so long.”
Monday’s luncheon included welcoming remarks by OU President Roderick McDavis and Athens Mayor Paul Wiehl, a performance by Athens Black Contemporary Dancers and an a capella vocal performance by Anointed Ministries.
The luncheon was preceded by a Silent March on campus and down Court Street to Baker Center, where the luncheon was held.