Despite heavy snowfall on Monday morning, people of all ages and walks of life packed the Eastern Michigan University Student Center Auditorium to hear Tim Wise’s keynote speech in commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr.
During his hour-long speech, Wise, an anti-racist writer and educator, challenged the idea of doing service and charitable work in the name of King without truly remembering the man behind the message.
“There are several Dr. Kings in our memory,” he said.
He began by asking which King we choose to remember today, nearly 45 years after his death. Do we remember the “whitewashed-pun-very-much-intended,” sanitized and saintly King, or do we remember the radical advocate for social justice? Which one of these Kings are our politicians and public figures referring to when they quote famous lines from his speeches?
“There are people who quote Dr. King who have never even cracked the spine of one of his books,” Wise said.
Wise discussed the “sanitization” of King’s legacy by remembering him and his devotion to community service. He referenced the National Day of Service and how people are encouraged to honor King by donating to the Red Cross, helping to rebuild and clean up communities and neighborhoods or donating to the local food bank.
“Without a doubt, Dr. King would say that these are great things,” Wise said. “But he did not believe in service for the sake of service.”
According to Wise, King knew that service and social transformation are not necessarily the same thing. The kind of service that King referred to, Wise explained, was radical service that fought what King called the triple evils: poverty, racism and militarism.
Wise said it’s good to feed the hungry, but King would want us in the streets demanding better living wages and policies that fight hunger and poverty; it’s nice to help military veterans and families, but King would say the best way to help them is by bringing every troop home, for good.
Wise also had a lot to say about society today, both culturally and politically, in terms of social justice in the areas of economy and education. Wise said we live in a “culture of cruelty” that embraces injustice and inequality, because “if everybody gets a good education, who is going to pick up my garbage on Wednesday morning?”
Wise spoke with conviction and his speech was punctuated by applause and murmurs of agreement from the audience.
“It was very eye-opening,” said Lisa Sexton, a freshman biochemistry and toxicology major. “It was astonishing how he was able to invoke the spirit of the people in the room. There was an overall good feeling.”
Psychology major Michala McCarver said, “It was a really powerful speech.”
Many left the auditorium deep in thought. “It’s a lot to think about,” social work major Danielle Moorer said. “I thought he was really on target as far as where we are in society and our political mindset.”
McCarver said, “He really made me think a lot. I’m not really proud of society right now.”
Overall, it seemed people were inspired by Wise’s words.
“It was motivating,” Moorer said. “We should stand beside people.”
Marketing major Shawn Perry said, “It opened my eyes to look at things from a broader perspective. We should figure problems out at the root rather than fixing them later.”
Well known for this critique of white privilege and racism in America, Wise has spoken at more than
800 colleges and high school campuses across the country. He was named by Utne Reader as one of the “25 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World.” Wise has authored six books and contributes regularly to CNN and other television networks and programs.
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