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January 14, 2005

Events and speeches highlight MLK Week

"We need to reclaim the ‘Dream' speech," began Melissa Harris-Lacewell, moderator for the "Realizing the Dream: Perspectives on Equality and Civil Rights" panel discussion last Wednesday night, the fourth event in a weeklong celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s life and legacy.

Harris-Lacewell, assistant professor at the Department of Political Science Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture, set the tone of the evening's discussion by urging the audience members to re-examine King's "Dream" speech. "I am suggesting that King's ‘Dream' speech wrote a ‘check' for all groups and people. It is a check written to a much larger community than just the African-Americans," she said, referring to a section of the ‘Dream' speech where King declared, that "America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.'"

The discussion that followed throughout the evening referred to King's influence on the "larger community" of minority issues.

Coordinated by the Office of Minority Student Affairs (OMSA), this event invited panelists to give different perspectives on the issues of race and equality. Among the speakers present were Stuart Michaels, assistant director of the Center for Gender Studies; Mae Ngai, assistant professor in the Department of History; Iris Young, professor in the Department of Political Science; and Héctor García, professor in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures.

Some perspectives of the "larger community" were presented by panelists, beginning with Young's talk on the female perspective on equality. "I am not going to try to give the female point of view because there is not a single female point of view," Young said.

Instead, Young focused on the idea of nonviolence as militancy, a transformative vision of the feminist movement in the '60s and '70s. "This movement utilized the idea of challenging injustice and confronting those defending the status quo in a nonviolent way, which was directly inspired by King's civil rights movement," Young said.

Young dispelled today's view of King as a "nice man, a saint, a vision of gentleness and politeness," not only because King was thought as a dangerous man—a provocateur during the civil rights movement of the '50s and '60s—but also because it is only through a nonviolent militancy with a transformative vision that society can be changed. "Nice, gentleness results in incremental progress," Young said. "Transformative vision and action result in change."

Young cited the "Pentagon Women" who surrounded the Pentagon hand-in-hand in protest against nuclear weapons in the 1980s as a "creative, transformative militant act." Today, Young said, "hints of the original vision still exist but we need to work harder to recover the transformative vision."

Mae Ngai continued the discussion from the perspective of Asian Americans. "We need to go beyond the black-white paradigm to understand the specificity of the individual experiences," she said.

Ngai focused on the experiences of Chinese and Chinese Americans in California in the latter half of the 1800s, where they were excluded from California schools. When the Chinese argued that they were victims of taxation without representation, the San Francisco Board of Advisors issued a statement that the exclusion of Chinese students was "for self-preservation, for the protection of American students from the invasion of Mongolian barbarism."

"Where African-Americans were labeled as ‘second class' citizens, the Chinese were ‘Alien-Citizens'," Ngai said, regarding the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which was not repealed until after WWII.

Ngai noted that there have been visible policy changes and improvements with respect to Asian Americans at the University of Chicago. OMSA now serves Asian American students, whereas in the past in did not.

However, Ngai argued that there is much more the University needs to do. "Asian Americans are underrepresented in the humanities and social sciences," said Ngai, "The University is reluctant to hire more Asian Americans. Currently, I am the only one on campus teaching Asian-American studies."

Héctor García took stage next, speaking about the Latino experience in Chicago. Before the civil rights movement, the Latino community in Chicago was sharply divided by language, citizenship, and culture. "Dr. King rocked the state," García said. "The relatively silent, dormant Latino population of previous years grew visible and active." From the African-American civil rights movement emerged new Latino political activists. "We see a new generation of Latino men and women embracing their identity and the influential historical figures of their culture."

Throughout the 1980s, Latino politicians were appointed to the city council of Chicagoland to represent the increasing Latino population. In a highly segregated city, Latinos today still encounter the problems of gentrification, naturalization, crime, and bilingual education. García cited the 2000 census, which said that the Latino population in Chicago would grow to 17 percent of the city by 2025.

"I am skeptical about these numbers because not everyone is counted. Illegal immigrants hide from census in fear of deportation," García said. He was particularly excited about one statistic. "By 2011, the census says that the first Latino will be elected mayor of Chicago," he reported.

Stuart Michaels gave the last presentation. "I was asked to reflect on the legacy of Dr. King with a queer perspective," Michaels said. "The term ‘queer' astounded and offended me, as a gay man, when I first heard it used."

Speaking as a member of the generation that created the phrase "gay man," Michaels switched to the term "queer" because it was more inclusive. "‘Queer' is not a gender statement but rather a statement of reticence with regard to the norms," explained Michaels.

Especially relevant to the MLK celebration this week is the passing of the anti-discriminatory bill by the Illinois House guaranteeing equal rights for gays and lesbians on Tuesday, January 11. Once this historic bill becomes law, Illinois will become the 15th state to outlaw discrimination against gays and lesbians and the 5th state in the nation to guarantee protection to trans-gendered people.

"This monumental step couldn't have been possible without the inspiration of Dr. King and the African-American civil rights movement," Michaels said. "We see the beginning of intense gay activism during the civil rights movement." Michaels also spoke about the issue of gays in the military, saying that they look to blacks in the military as models in the ongoing fight for more rights. "Dr. King's teachings mobilized gay people across Chicago during the '60s and '70s, and continues to do so," he said.

The "Realizing the Dream: Perspectives on Equality and Civil Rights" panel discussion was the fourth in a weeklong event commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Other events such as "Roots & Rhymes: Spoken Word/Open Mic" on Friday, January 14; "Gospel Fest" on Sunday, January 16; and the Keynote Address given by Kweisi Mfume on Monday, January 17 are to follow.