Fishbein: The Big Green Moderate

Martin Luther King Jr.'s critique of the "white moderate" is especially relevant to the College.

by Dan Fishbein | 1/17/19 2:05am


When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at Dartmouth on May 23, 1962, he delivered a message about the importance of resisting conformity, specifically around racist viewpoints. “There are certain things within our social order and in the world to which I’m proud to be maladjusted,” King told his audience. “The world is in desperate need of maladjusted men and women … And I believe that through such maladjustment we will be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man, into the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom in justice.”

Over the coming weeks, Dartmouth will attempt to honor King’s legacy. This celebration, according to the College’s website, will coalesce around the theme of “Standing at the Threshold.” “It is our hope that the programs over the next several weeks will inspire you to get on board and embrace and support inclusivity, equity and diversity in our community and around the world,” Evelynn Ellis, the school’s vice president for Institutional Diversity and Equity, writes. “We hope that you will be inspired to speak up for your neighbor even if your own well-being is not threatened.” Dartmouth will screen a documentary about King’s life, hold a “Sing-In” to learn the music of social movements and show King’s speech twice on Martin Luther King Jr. Day next Monday.

While the College no doubt means well with its programming, students should approach these events with a critical mindset. Although our country now idolizes King and has given him a national holiday, King’s message to Dartmouth reveals that he may not have been comfortable with how easily liberals now accept him. Furthermore, students should resist letting the College collapse a diversity of often conflicting messages delivered by activists during the 1960s and recognize that the notion of justice was, and very much still is, up for debate. 

The movie that the College shows alongside King’s speech montages several pictures of 1960s activists, including Malcolm X and members of the Black Panther Party. Without providing context on how these people related to King and his movement, this movie commits a gross historical injustice. While King sought to replace a segregated social structure with integration, wherein blacks could participate in white-controlled institutions, Malcolm wanted blacks to separate, believing that they could achieve more by building their own institutions. Furthermore, whereas King required that his followers practice nonviolence in their protest efforts, Malcolm believed blacks should seek liberation “by any means necessary.” Huey P. Newton, founder of the Black Panther Party, idolized Malcolm, citing him as inspiration for the Panthers’ call on black people in Oakland and around the country to defend themselves against police brutality. Newton and the Panthers believed King had too much power as the leader of the civil rights movement, and they wanted the people to take action themselves when demanding justice. By not acknowledging these alternative approaches to combatting injustice in this movie, the College exploits the impactful imagery of activists to further the spectacle of a man and a cause they did not believe in. 

While Dartmouth might use its celebratory programming as a platform for speakers who do meaningful work to combat injustice, the College itself seems to have not taken the opportunity to use this moment to hold a debate about its own complicated relationship with inclusivity. The events include four guest speakers at the Life Sciences Center on topics related to sexual violence, as well as a keynote speech from Georgetown Law professor Alicia Ely Yamin on the topic “Sexual Violence: Survival, Stereotypes, and Social Change.” The College has not scheduled events that would allow students, the people affected by sexual violence at Dartmouth, to challenge the College about, for example, the $70 million lawsuit filed against it or the lack of undergraduate engagement in the C3I initiative. The College has invited a community activist who focuses on urban renewal to speak, but it has not scheduled time for a discussion about how injustice and racism exist in Dartmouth’s own communities. 

This effort by Dartmouth to both bring in speakers who have worked to combat injustice without seeing how it itself participates in creating injustice parallels King’s visit to the school 56 years ago. Up until the late 1960s, the school only matriculated a handful of black students each year. This lack of admissions equality went against King’s emphasis in his speech on the need to continue to walk the long road toward ending racism. It would take the College until 1970, when President John Kemeny decided to respond to civil unrest sweeping the country, to begin increasing the number of students of color it enrolled. 

Rather than waiting for the College to someday act against injustice on campus, thoughtful students should refuse to adjust to the College’s narrative and programming around social progress. Instead of listening to a speech that King gave about equality at a time when the school practiced its own inequality, they could follow the philosophies of the activists marginalized in the College’s understanding of civil rights activism and work themselves to demand change now. 

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