I was honored to be asked to keynote at my city’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration, one that they named “Moving the Dream Forward”. I am a new-ish transplant to the community and have been looking for ways to connect and give back, so I happily agreed. However, a few days after agreeing I was emailed and told that there had been a mix up amongst the organizers. Other organizers had asked another person to be keynote, a black male Reverend, and so now I was no longer to keynote the event, but to become the “Distinguished Guest.” I couldn’t deny that I felt a little slighted, but decided I would make the best of it. And since I was no longer the keynote, I felt more freedom to make the speech that I wanted to make. And I decided was not a speech about MLK, but about black women. Here is what I said:
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s spirit of love and of fight for racial justice is one to be admired and celebrated and replicated. This day has always been meaningful to me. When I was in high school, in East Lansing, Michigan, we held a sit-in to demand that we observed MLK day and actually won. The next year we had the day off from school. We were able to change the policy in our school district. We were his legacy in action. I am honored to be here honoring him, especially on the 50th anniversary of his passing.
However, I am actually not going to talk too much about Dr. King today. Rather, I want to take a moment to talk about a sector of the movement that doesn’t often get the recognition it deserves. I am here to talk about black women, and will highlight three here today.
I am going to start with one incredible great. Her name is Diane Nash. She is a living legend. Diane was a Midwest-born, Chicago raised, witty and determined black girl. She took advantage of educational experiences allotted to her and ended up, at the age of 20, in Nashville Tennessee to attend the prestigious, historically black college of Fisk University. Diane was excited to be at Fisk, the place that taught W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells and other’s their critical lens.
But what did not jive with Diane was the overt and explicit segregation that plagued the South. When shortly after arriving in Tennessee she went to the state fair and was forced to use the “Colored” bathroom, she knew her move to Nashville had much more in store for her. She went back to Fisk with a mission to challenge segregation. Nash began attending nonviolent civil disobedience workshops led by James Lawson, and informed by Mahatma Gandhi. She committed herself to being the most studied and passionate student, and, at the ripe age of 22 she became the leader of the Nashville sit-in movement.
She trained students how to endure verbal and physical attacks when they tried to integrate segregated lunch counters. She led the resisters through her poise and strategic planning. She was unafraid to be on the front lines, and was assaulted and arrested numerous times during these protests. It was Nash that bravely confronted the mayor of Nashville and got him, on record, to reveal that as a person, he believed segregation was immoral. After this public acknowledgment the movement gained momentum and just three weeks later the lunch counters were serving blacks. The Nashville sit-ins spread to 69 cities across the United States, and were a huge success in the anti-segregation movement. She literally claimed a seat at the table for herself and others.
Nash would go on to serve many roles in the Civil Rights Movement, including leading the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, from 1961–1965 while under the direction of Martin Luther King. He, too, was impressed with Nash. In 1964 she received the Rosa Parks honor from Dr. King. When asked about herself in relation to King she later said: “I never considered Dr. King my leader. I always considered myself at his side and I considered him at my side.” This is not, in any way, a dig at Dr. King and his leadership. It was just a recognition of her own merits. Indeed, this self-assurance shaped her very understanding of what freedom means. According to Nash, “Freedom, by definition, is people realizing that they are their own leader.” Nash exemplifies a leader, a freedom fighter, and a civil rights hero.
Nash, like King, taught us many lessons that we can implement today:
- Don’t allow others to define what is right. Segregation was the norm in the South and Nash could have accepted it. But she knew it was not, and followed her own conscious in decided she would fight against it.
- Become studied before you jump into action. Seek out others doing similar work, study various types of movement strategies, and practice the plan of attack so you can increase the successfulness and replication.
- If a space is not open to you, it may be up to you to change it, even with your presence. Claim a seat at the table.
I try to implement these lessons in my own life. So now I am going transition to covering the second black woman—I am going to talk about myself 😉 Nash is definitely a woman I personally relate to in many ways. I, too, was also a Midwest born and raised, witty, brown girl, who ventured to Nashville in my early twenties in seek of my own freedom. You see, I grew up pretty poor and we lacked a lot of resources. My single mother worked hard to provide and support me and my three siblings but I often felt trapped by what we didn’t have. Where we couldn’t go, what we couldn’t eat, and what thoughts we couldn’t put into words. However, unlike Nash, at this point in my life I was deathly shy and rarely ventured outside of the box. I knew what injustice looked like, I witnessed and experienced it, but I wasn’t vocal enough to speak up, even if I wanted to.
But education – that is one thing that helped free me. I first learn to escape through books. I read a lot. I first engaged with autobiographies of people I admired, like Diana Ross and then shifted to others like Malcom X and Assata Shakur and Barak Obama. During my education, I, like Dr. King, decided to major in Sociology. I soon learned about injustice and interwoven systems of oppression. This freeing of my mind was powerful.
But education freed me in other ways. I was able to earn a full tuition scholarship for my Bachelors. I was able to study abroad, and see things I would have never imagined, like Volcanos in Nicaragua or Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa. Those experiences also allowed me to see what poverty and inequality looked like at a global scale. Most importantly, these experiences gave me the vocal skills to put curiosity and critiques of the world to words.
I decided that the skills and knowledge I was gaining had to be used in a way that mattered. This is something that was central to Dr. King’s teaching. In his speech titled, “A Time to Break the Silence” he powerful instructed, “Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.”
You see, unlike how some would like to remember him, King was radical. This idea, of speaking truth to power and disrupting the hostile world, led me into various roles, On example being a founding member of a group we called, Act on Racism, in college. Our group went into classrooms filled with our- primarily white peers – and staged plays in order to showcase the racism we had experienced there. I knew at that point that it was no longer ok for me to be silent.
The freeing nature of education then pushed me to pursue my doctoral degree, which is why I, myself, landed in Nashville at 21 – to attend Vanderbilt University. And it is also why I am here today.
Well, where am I today? First, honored to be standing here with all of you in this theater. But as my bio describes, I am an Assistant Professor of Sociology at that new school down the road – the University of California, Merced. I didn’t know this before I arrived, but I was hired as the first black women in the School of Social Science, Humanities and Arts at this newest research university in the United States. I now have a seat at that table.
Now I am not on the freedom fighter level of Diane Nash – that is only something I aspire to be – but I would like to think I am at least a freedom agitator. That I can take those lessons Nash and King taught us to heart—that I can use my voice, my presence, and my skills to help free the minds of those I come across, and use my work to help dismantle oppressive structures as well. But it remains central to my being to lift as a climb, and leave a trail of seats in my wake.
The final woman I will, just briefly, talk about today is Solange Knowles. You have now heard me say, “a seat at the table” a few times and it is no coincidence that A Seat at the Table is the title of Solange’s Grammy winning album. Solange recently revealed why she went back to New Iberia, Louisiana to make this amazing album. Her maternal grandparents lived in Louisiana, but were run out of town because of tense race relations after that came to a head after her they left her grandfather for dead in a mining explosion. Solange chose to return there to produce the album to pay homage to her roots. As she explained in her NPR interview with Ari Shapiro, she wanted to “reclaim that space,” she went on to say: “I wanted to be able to go back as a descendant of my grandparents and stake my claim and create work that honored them.” That is likely where these powerful lyrics come from in her song Rise:
“Walk in your ways, so you won’t crumble
Walk in your ways, so you can sleep at night
Walk in your ways, so you will wake up and rise”
That is my message to you all here, and especially black women. Reclaim space. Make a seat at the table. Follow in the footsteps of Solange. Diane. Coretta. Ida. Rosa. Sojourner. Assata. Angela. Michelle. Follow the words of Maxine Water “I strong black women. I cannot be intimidated. I cannot be undermined.” We must reclaim our space and reclaim our time and rise.
This is a message Diane made clear when she herself gave a speech last year at Yale University for Martin Luther King Jr. day. She said:
“Martin was not the leader. He was the spokesperson.…It was not Martin’s movement, it was the people’s movement. And that is an important for you to understand, because when we see things that have to be done today, if you think it was Martin’s movement, you might say: ‘I wish we had a great leader like Martin.’ … But if you understand that it is the people’s movement, you would say, ‘What can I do.?’”
Please ask yourself that: “What can I do?” Think about the lessons that Diane taught us with her service: to decide for ourselves what is to be fought for; to create a plan of action; and to make space with our presence. This is how I believe we can move the movement forward, by doing this, but also by recognizing that MLK’s movement will not move forward without black women.
^me trying channel some Diane Nash vibes