Courtney Field, '19, reflects on the 2016 Martin Luther King, Jr. Lecture

by Courtney Field, '19

It is 8:52 pm on Monday night, January 18th, 2016. I am sitting at my computer after hearing Dr. Angela Onwuachi-Willig’s lecture, “Killing King’s Dream: Examining the Ties Between Till and Trayvon”, and I’m still processing. I am inspired for a number of reasons, so let me attempt to relay my excitement.

First, let me first state what I have learned from Dr. Onwuachi-Willig’s lecture. The similarities between Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin was that they both were black adolescents murdered by white men, after previous injustices, for the preservation of a white privileged society. Both of these murders inspired the country to take a step back and look at racism. Sadly, even when Americans are forced to look at the bigger picture of racism they do not see fat-tongued, 14 year old Emmett Till or bloody, Skittles-fan, 17 year old Trayvon Martin. Instead many people, including the judicial system, see through white-colored glass, and chalk up the injustice to the dead boys who did not know the norms of the racist society they were entering. The courts then let the murderers off free to spread more hate unto this world.

Both Bryant and Milam, Till’s killers, and Zimmerman, Martin’s killer, were known for wanting to keep blacks below white status even if that meant Zimmerman calling the police on a “suspicious” 7-9 year old black child. Both Till and Martin were in their non-native towns visiting family; they had as much right to be in the cities they were in as a white person. Yet, all of their slayers say phrases along the lines of “keeping him in his place” or “he was out of place”. In both of these cases, some black people go out of their way to live their daily lives, still in fear, and others are inspired to refuse to give up their bus seat. People protested after Till; the black boycotts on both men’s businesses made them shut down. One complained that since all his black workers quit and he had to hire white workers that demanded more wages, he was forced to shut down. Now he and his family are having it hard. This man is so ironically pointing to his hardships after killing a young black boy whose family is having an even more hard time without their baby boy whom they could hardly identify if it weren’t for Till’s father’s ring on his hand.

People protested after Trayvon's death as well. During such protests many people complained about how these protests are disruptive. Again, ironically pointing to how combating black oppression is disrupting the daily lives of whites. It is disheartening that the racism and preservation of white status is still alive and well after nearly 60 years, but has taken a new form.

The second part of my inspirational high is how this relates to me, a white, 18 year old, female, college student. Dr. Onwuachi-Willig’s passion for racial justice is contagious. I saw this not only during her lecture but also during our Q & A session. Although the lecture focused on how the privileged’s desire to remain in social control seemed disheartening, I will not despair because James Baldwin said, along the lines of, in the film "The Price of the Ticket," that dispair comes when you lose hope, while when you are enraged, you still have hope for change.

After the lecture, myself and and 2 other students walked back to the dormitory discussing the lecture and our personal passions. We talked about how even after nearly 60 years from Emmett Till’s death, the mentality of sticking to the status quo and the racial hierarchy would probably discourage civil rights activists like Martin Luther King, Jr. However, I do not think he would change his actions because even though he did not see the big dream become a reality he, with many others, still brought about some change for the future generations. This could be perceived as a negative thing--that the work one does today may not cause a dent in the problem and that the mentality will carry on for their children’s children. To me, however, I am encouraged that even though the social justice warriors did not see the battle won, they were willing to still fight.

After beginning to apply the message from the lecture to my personal life, this is where I am at. I have a passion for helping women especially women who have seen abuse or the horrendous violence of human trafficking. Through love, I want to help provide healing to these women. I am willing to live and die for this cause. The abuse and silencing of women has gone on since what seems like the beginning of time.  However, I am sure that the mentality that men are superior is still ingrained into many people’s thought processes and will continue to be for perhaps my children’s children’s time or even longer. This does not change the fact that I can change my life and influence others. This does not change the fact that I cannot save the world in a day or perhaps even see the change I would like in 60 years. Most importantly, this does not change the fact I am willing to serve and seek justice for these women.

Similar to James Baldwin and Martin Luther King, Jr., my passion for progress run just as deep as the roots of injustices. What I have learned from this lecture is that passion permits progress. New forms of racism are among us 60 years after Emmett Till’s brutal death and 4 years after Trayvon Martin’s unnecessary funeral, but passion for change must still burn in the hearts of Americans to continue to allow progress. There are a lot of similarities that we cannot ignore from past to present such as police brutality and unequal opportunities. The world cannot radically change in the way we would like in 60 years so we CANNOT give up just as the faceless boycotters risked their lives and their families lives did not become defeated and let me, a white, 18 year old, female, college student in the year 2016, be inspired by Dr. Angela Onwuachi-Willig’s lecture.

Dr. Angela Onwuachi-Willig with Luther students, staff and faculty
Dr. Angela Onwuachi-Willig hosting a Q&A with Luther Students

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