Editor's Note: This speech was originally delivered on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, 2018. Any grammatical errors or misspellings have been preserved.
It would be a genuine depravity to stand upon this stage per the invitation of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion without thanking our very own Dean Futrell, for her continuous hard work and dedication to this soaring community. It would be of equal shame if I were to squander this platform and not acknowledge my very own mother. If it were not for her teaching me to always think critically about my position in society and to challenge the very diaphragm of the majority, I do not believe that I would be standing here today. In that hand, had it not been for the consistency of black women in our nation’s history, I cease to believe that any of us would be standing here, today.
I do not take this opportunity to speak in the honor of my Brother, and civil rights leader, Reverend Dr. King lightly. I look out into this crowd and see my beautiful, intelligent people of color. I see changers, drivers, and scholars. I see hope sprinkled in bundles of resplendent light. Today, I do not speak for myself but I speak for us, the minority.
I find it amazing how in the face of progress, we drift away from what Dr. King genuinely desired. Dr. King famously stated in his widely-known Letter from a Birmingham Jail that, “Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice,” and it is for that reason that I will break down and describe our flawed system of democracy. This system is defined by its economic, political, and institutional disadvantages. On paper, this system works. But we must remind ourselves, even in a position of privilege, that our nation was developed, firstly, as a nation of slaves and that any institutional creation in that time period, was and still is putting people of color at a disadvantage. This system was not designed for me, nor for any of the people of color in this crowd tonight, and it has failed us. Our system has failed us when young black men are systematically placed on the ‘pipeline to prison’ through their education systems and then marked as ‘unemployable’ upon return to society, only to reignite that same cycle amongst their children, creating a generational bind to the crevices of our democracy. Our system has failed us when a 12-year-old black child in Cleveland, Ohio by the name of Tamir Rice is shot and killed by police for using a toy gun, and the officer who unjustly killed him walks freely today. A structure that in joint effort under-funds and over-criminalizes children of color cannot stand to exist. We must defund, eradicate, and deconstruct this system that is designed to mask privileges and racial prejudices, if we truly desire to march in King’s Dream. How so? That process begins now. This poisonous structure can and will latch on to environments that attract it, and it is without question that the current administration has empowered it immensely. An obvious and clear example of this appeared last summer (70 miles from here) in Charlottesville, Virginia. The racist pride of our country has surfaced once more, and it is not a coincidence. This backlash was predicted by Dr. King as he stated, “The soft minded man always fears change. He feels security in the status quo, and he has an almost morbid fear of the new. For him, the greatest pain is the pain of a new idea”. This same structure can be applied here. This great academic institution has some beautiful history. The Speaking Tradition, The Honor System, and our prestigious nature stand out, especially, as the
ninth-oldest higher learning institution in America. It is in that, where we must realize that the values and mores of that time are systematically linked to this University. Students of color on this campus are literally and intrinsically existing in a space that was and still is not designed for us. The poisonous character of America’s current state latches on to such environments with ease. When speaking with my white counterparts, they stand in awe when realizing that their education on prejudices and race does not adequately stand for anything without action. They do not understand that when my black and brown friends walk through the passageways of Washington and Lee University, they feel invisible. A system that was not designed for us stands out clearly in an environment that never welcomed us. As people continue to worship the works of Robert E. Lee, who literally stood against my existence, it strips the people of color within this community of an identity. When a stand for “tradition” in our annual Lee-Jackson Day parades outweighs the promise of equality on MLK weekend, the system is poisonous. I challenge my white brothers and sisters to acknowledge their systematic privilege and to use that privilege in a manner that will defunct the very system that was created to divide us. On this campus, that includes direct involvement from this University’s Board of Trustees and Administration. It will take a common understanding of this to uplift any change in direction within our University that is so strongly rooted in tradition. If Lexington, Virginia were to stand as a microcosm of our nation today, I stand to believe that these would be the requests of Reverend Dr. King, and that any opponent of these statements is an enemy of equality.