Each year a planning committee composed of faculty, staff, and students across campus choose a theme based on its relevance to current social justice issues and the teachings of Dr. King.
The 2019 Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium theme is…
Unravel is defined as to investigate, solve or explain (something complicated or puzzling). In its elusivity, the verb unravel is neutral but can be applied to anything that may call for an “undoing of”. Perhaps it brings to mind a braid, or piece of yarn separating into its parts so something new and stronger may be created. Unravel calls us to continue the work of the civil rights movement which sought to exile the treasonable threads of segregation and inequality from the tapestry of American life.
“In human relations the truth is hard to come by, because most groups are deceived about themselves. Rationalization and the incessant search for scapegoats are the psychological cataracts that blind us to our individual and collective sins. But the day has passed for blind euphemisms. He who lives with untruth lives in spiritual slavery. Freedom is still the bonus we receive for knowing the truth. ‘Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.’”
– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The Strands of Dissonance
The first stitch of America’s social fabric was derived from the need to have a voice and be counted. These ideals of independence, freedom, and safety called out to people all over the world to see the United States as a land worthy of new beginnings and allegiance. Unfortunately, interwoven with those initial stitches were the strands of discrimination that suppressed voice and freedom on the bases of gender, ethnicity and class. America’s riches were built from enslaving Africans and exploiting the labor of Asians and Mexicans, atop a soil stolen from the people indigenous to the land. One of Dr. King’s messages to politicians, community leaders, educators, and religious leaders was that the American promise and social justice were entangled in a ball of confusion with hate, crime, corruption, greed, and ignorance. Throughout our nation’s history we have warred and struggled against one another, and worked and progressed with one another to address these wrongs and increasingly live up to the highest ideals of a democratic nation. Now today, 242 years later, social movement after social movement still asks, as one nation, indivisible, how do we achieve liberty and justice for all?
“History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again” – Maya Angelou
America’s ethos of liberty is contradicted by a long-standing legacy of discrimination. The earliest terrors committed against peoples have not ended but have been reversioned. For the indigenous peoples of America, we portrayed the conclusion of wars aimed at extermination and relocation but went on to develop federal policies to further control tribal sovereignty through the reservation system. For Africans, we proclaimed an end to slavery but continued to restrict freedom through Black codes, and Jim Crow.
While the rights of many groups have advanced, we still see many groups suffer from a lack of protection. We no longer deny women the right to own property and to vote, but when compared to their male counterparts, we pay women 20% less. Same-sex marriages have been legalized nationwide, but only 48% of LGBT adults live in states without laws that explicitly prohibit discrimination at work based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity.
Our struggles with migration continue. Today, we no longer force Japanese Americans into internment camps, an act rationalized by war. However, now we crowd migrant families into detention centers and separate parents from their children. We also have an unprecedented immigration ban on a people as defined by their religious affiliation (Muslim) and nationality.
The war on drugs has come to be recognized as the war on people because it exacts a cost of lives and disrupts families and communities. People living in poverty and people of color suffer disproportionately from the war on drugs and are targeted by the prison industrial complex.
#BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo are movements that are not merely reminders of these injustices, they are calls to government, communities and individuals to act. These movements ask “do we accept these realities as the best we can do? Or will we commit to teasing apart these institutions of war and labor exploitation from our institutions of justice and liberty?” This call to action reminds us that although there have been many individuals from marginalized identities that broke barriers, we must not require exceptionalism while allowing the general rule of oppression to stay rooted. And in seeking to change the rule, let us not be distracted.
“These questions have nothing to do with the case. And most people who kick up this kind of dust know that it is simple dust to obscure the real question of rights and opportunities”. – Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., 1946
Let us not be taken off course with red herring debates. As we debate the place of hateful speech in our society, we should remember that ideological perspective is not equivalent to social identity. No form of race/ethnicity, nationality, gender, gender identity, (dis)ability, age, sexual orientation, or economic class can pose an inherent threat to anyone else, nor are these subject to change without great effort. However, hateful speech, one form of ideology, inherently threatens and lays value and measures humanity and affords or denies protection based on social identity. America’s context requires we protect the freedom of speech. Yet how do we unravel the debate about hateful speech from the work to end the discrimination of populations that historically and currently are underrepresented, overpoliced, targeted with social stigma and are lobbying for more legal protections?
The time has long come to unravel the social fabric so as to remove the threads that strangle some populations. Unravel represents the value and frightening nature of unmasking and addressing institutional isms (racism, classism, sexism, ableism, etc…) and personal bias and discrimination in order to arrive at a more just and inclusive community.
To unravel is to deeply examine our values and the character of our actions in order to tease out the parts of our identity (nationality, race, class, sex, gender, etc…) that lead to marginalizing and targeting others. Our biases are closely tied to who we are, interwoven into the fabric of our lives. Some biases are easy to see. Some only perceptible once we encounter someone who–at some point invisible to us–forces us to see and recognize who they are or what we did to them. To remove these biases, we must deconstruct our world as we know it.
Unravel acknowledges that it is unsettling and even upsetting to consider letting go of our biases because they are part of how we understand ourselves. But it is this fear we must overcome, that we must unravel in, to become who we were meant to become. Unraveling allows us to see that we are more than our biases and thus can let them go with no harm to ourselves.
If we are willing to chisel away at our deepest values and challenge our longest held traditions, we may shape institutions that contain diversity, equity and inclusion at its base. The mere fact that we can name and describe systemic and institutional discrimination is progress. Yet there is more work to be done to stamp it out. This work is the responsibility of institutions before they are prompted by protest and demonstration. Thus, unravel also calls us to be proactive in this transformative process.
Cast at the base of the Statue of Liberty, one of our proudest monuments, is:
“…Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
We must reshape policy and practice to reflect the reality that we are one community enriched by both our similarities and differences. King believed passionately that we, as a society could change, he was also a realist. King knew that this change would not necessarily come today or tomorrow, but over time, by unraveling, strand by strand, centuries of racism, classism, sexism and injustice across our nation.
To become unraveled is not a single step, but a process, a journey that ultimately, provides opportunity for what happens next. In order to create real, tangible, long-lasting change, a personal unraveling in each and every one of us must occur. It must be sincere. To truly achieve the greatest version of ourselves – in the broadest sense of the expression – we must first look deep at the core of who we are, both as individuals and as a society.
It is time to begin again and re-stitch our social fabric by sewing together the principles of freedom, independence, and voice with the principles of community, equality, equity, and unconditional love. We must unravel first, if we are to stitch together the beloved community King so often spoke of.
King Jr, M. L. (2010). Where do we go from here: Chaos or community? (Vol. 2). Beacon Press.