As part of the University’s King Week celebration honoring civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., Emory hosted a reading on Jan. 26 of excerpts from King’s speech “America’s Chief Moral Dilemma,” followed by a discussion panel of Emory professors.
The speech, given on May 17, 1967 at the University of California, Berkeley, concerns what King called the “three major evils”: racism, poverty and war.
“I believe these are the remarks we absolutely need to hear in America today,” said Associate Professor of Religion and African American Studies Dianne M. Stewart.
Andrew Mellon Professor of Humanities Valerie Babb and Assistant Professor of History Carl Suddler joined Stewart in the discussion. Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion Carol Henderson hosted the program, and Assistant Professor of Theater Studies January LaVoy read the speech’s excerpts.
The discussion ranged from tax policy and militarism in American policing to the role of the church in fighting racial injustice and popular culture in upholding the three evils.
Suddler pointed to the Jan. 6 Capitol riot as evidence that white Americans have nothing to fear from law enforcement, contrasting it with the violent police responses at Black Lives Matter protests over the summer. He said American culture has treated police primarily as heroes since 9/11, overlooking their increasing militarization.
“United States police badges have been able to operate without borders or boundaries,” Suddler said. “If that’s not the military, I don’t know what is.”
The panelists then considered King’s legacy. They noted that King’s anti-capitalist ideology is often overlooked, which Suddler explained reduces King to his “‘I Have a Dream’ moment.”
“If King was around today, there would be all types of labels thrown at his ideas,” Suddler said. “He would be a socialist in 2021. With that being said, we also need to be careful of how we frame and categorize him.”
Stewart argued that American churches should take a more decisive stance in promoting justice and denouncing white supremacy, especially after the Jan. 6 insurgency.
“I think about the signs of ‘Jesus Saves’ [at the Capitol insurrection], and I think about how many in the extreme right are conflating Christianity with white supremacy and white militarism and anti-Black violence,” Stewart said. “We just have not seen enough of a public response from the American church to these offenses and abuses.”
Babb questioned the sustainability of calls in popular culture for inclusivity over the last year but remarked that new forms of media are making it easier to share diverse narratives.
“Artists are finding ways to express themselves through other technologies than movies, television and radio, and I think if we can support that, if we can let those new technologies take root, we can also let new voices take root,” Babb said. “One of the pluses of this COVID moment is that it has forced us to rethink what we do and how we do it.”
The program concluded with remarks on the future of the racial justice movement in America. Panelists emphasized learning and spreading knowledge and highlighted that the actions of every individual can impact fighting the systemic issues King addressed in his 1967 speech.
Henderson concluded the program by addressing Emory’s role in combating racism.
“Emory is the institution; the people in it make that institution, and so the responsibility starts with us in our circle of influence to move this conversation forward,” Henderson said.