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African-American Heritage Month

Bell extols King's radicalism

By Nancy Hurrelbrinck

Martin Luther King's more radical side has often been "air brushed out" of his life by those who memorialize him, author and New York University law professor Derrick Bell told a crowd of more than 500 at U.Va.'s annual celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday Saturday night.

The program, coordinated by Cornelius L. Bynum, interim assistant dean of African-American Affairs and director of the Luther P. Jackson house, and a student committee, included a mélange of word and song. Hilda E. Ward, peer health educator at Student Health, read from her poetry; three U.Va. students read from the autobiographical writings of Corretta Scott King, Ralph Abernathy and Andrew Young; and Bell, author of four books on racism in the U.S., gave the keynote address. Interspersed with the talks were performances by Black Voices, a U.Va. student choral group, and the Youth Alive Center Children's Choir.

We need to rescue King's legacy from his enemies and his friends, both of whom are prone "to remember his less disturbing statements," said Bell, who was the first tenured African-American professor at Harvard Law School, and who was dismissed from that post in 1989 for protesting the school's failure to hire and tenure women of color.

"King is a member of that uniquely American racial pantheon of people like Paul Robeson and W.E.B. Dubois who are revered after their deaths for the goals that [because they lived in a hostile social and political climate] they couldn't achieve during their lives," he said.

The rest of us saw them as so fierce, we were afraid to get too close, he said. "Maybe we find it easier to honor the dead than follow the living."

The media tends to depict King as an advocate of nonviolence, "stifling," his more militant side, though he was seen as dangerous and subversive during his life, Bell said.

"He spoke out against the Vietnam War, saying that he couldn't be silent about an issue that was 'destroying the soul of the nation,'" though black leaders, including the NAACP, disagreed with his stance, he said.

King also decried economic injustice, arguing that "a radical redistribution of power must take place, that new programs were needed to compel unwilling authorities to yield to the mandates of justice," Bell said.

"Were King alive today, I think he'd still be conveying a message whites don't want to hear, [that] racial discrimination remains deeply embedded in U.S. society," he said.

"Racism is a system of advantage that benefits all whites, whether or not they know it," he said. "In America, whites don't think of themselves as white, but as 'normal.'"

"The challenge of our lives is to take action, even when we believe it's possible our actions will fail," he said. "That's the legacy of Martin Luther King."


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