In the United States’ tumultuous political environment, some Americans have found themselves asking foundational questions about society beyond the scope of mere partisan politics. For some, it’s no longer about what kind of reforms should be instituted to curb societal injustice and inequality; rather, it’s about the very nature of the governmental and economic regimes we live under. As material conditions for working-class citizens and impoverished minority communities have failed to markedly improve under either Democratic or Republican control, Americans have become exhausted with party politics and reformism. But the more radical politics of protest that underpinned the civil rights movement offer some lessons for us today, and on Oct. 10, activist and author Angela Davis provided the Emory community with some important insight to that end.
During her lecture, titled “1968: Lessons From Fifty Years of Change,” Davis reflected upon her decades of experiences with political activism. The key events that she recounted from that year included the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April, Paris’s widespread student uprisings in May and the subsequent election of former President Richard Nixon in November — which coincided with the election of the first African-American woman to Congress, Shirley Chisholm. As someone with no personal connection to this period in American history, I was struck by the familiarity of such a polarized environment.
Through her lecture, Davis painted a picture of a divided America rife with racial tension and societal unrest, comparing it to the current political climate under President Donald J. Trump. She expressed concern that institutional issues like police brutality and disproportionate incarceration of racial minorities remain challenges that America has yet to overcome. At the same time, she criticized the notion that these kinds of issues can simply be legislated out of existence, insisting that the deep structural nature of these inequalities must be considered and addressed. These are the kinds of conversations I find myself having with friends on a regular basis, and it was reassuring to hear someone so profound asking people to think outside the scope of existing structures, as I often urge my fellow students to do.
Davis repeatedly cited revered academic and feminist thinker Audre Lorde in declaring that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” a wake-up call to the reform-minded. Davis urged them to alter their praxis and to seek radical change at an institutional level instead of altering existing structures to make them more inclusive.
It can be intimidating and frustrating to break free from the traditionally narrow debates of liberalism versus conservatism — to observe society from a broader institutional perspective. Change doesn’t happen overnight, and those who benefit from the status quo will not relinquish authority willingly; only repeated direct action by radical activists can force the powerful to capitulate to popular opinion. However, these conversations are absolutely essential in bringing meaningful material progress to the world, and Emory’s position as a resource-rich Southern research institution presents opportunities for the University to break ground and support broader institutional changes. To this end, I feel that the entire Emory community could be enriched by considering Davis’s vision of the future.
Zach Ball (20C) is from Griffin, Ga.