extols King's radicalism
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
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
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,"
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."
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.
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.
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.
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."