Shaun King Calls for ‘Commitment to Justice’



Writer and activist Shaun King speaks at Mead Chapel on Nov. 1.


Speaking to a packed crowd at Mead Chapel last week, Shaun King, a prominent Black Lives Matter activist and senior justice writer for the New York Daily News, urged students “to make a life-long commitment to justice.”

King said people have an exaggerated view of how progressive they truly are and need to do the hard work to address racism. He encouraged them to see the Black Lives Matter movement in a broad historical context.

“There was the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement and then today,” he said. 

The crowd gave King a standing ovation, and after the speech, many students lined up to ask questions. Charles Rainey ’19 asked a question that was met with cheers and applause. Rainey wondered how to pursue activism on a progressive campus where there is a difference between rhetoric and understanding of racism. King answered by sharing a personal story. 

“In 2008, I was pastor of a church in Atlanta,” King said. “We had a great board and a lot of board meetings. One day, our best volunteer, she made our church run, she told me that I speak over the women in the board meetings.”

“I felt the need to be defensive,” King continued, “but I trusted her and this made me realize everyone has an exaggerated view of how progressive they truly are. All of us bring our own privilege and biases to the table. But the problem is, we do not address our own biases. Instead, the hard work of addressing racism has been left up to the wrong people. It should not be left up to African Americans to fix racism because it is not African Americans who are enforcing racist practices.”

Rainey said that King’s answer made him think more about some aspects of how to galvanize support for social justice. 

“It made me think about how we mobilize,” he said. “Although unity among people of the color is important,  we have been missing a huge part of the puzzle according to Shaun King and that is mobilizing white people.” 

Stella Boye-Doe ’19 said the talk was a necessary one for the College. “A lot of the time, black students are marginalized with other students of color and it seems as if Middlebury feels like because it has that color already, it doesn’t need to support students once they get into college,” she said. “It is important that Middlebury retain black student populations and makes them feel like they are a part of the community at Middlebury.” 

Mead Chapel filled early with students, faculty, staff and town residents; many had to stand in the aisles and in the back of the chapel. The College had a contentious year last year and held three town hall meetings to discuss issues like cultural appropriation, political correctness and inclusivity on campus. Rainey said these conversations are important, but he said he is still waiting for policy changes that will have a stronger effect on campus life.

“I haven’t seen any policy from the administration and student government and we are almost a semester in,” he said. “I want to see administration getting involved and creating an African American studies program on campus, and enrolling more black people and sending recruiters to certain areas where those marginalized groups are found and trying to get them to come to our school.” 

Miguel Fernández, professor of Spanish and chief diversity officer of the College, said that encouraging conversation and teaching inclusive pedagogy is the key to a more inclusive campus. 

“Having a person like Shaun King, Kimberlé Crenshaw or Ta-Nehisi Coates on campus is such a big event that it will generate a lot of conversation,” he said. “Even students who don’t attend the talk, will hear about it and those that do attend the talk will find out what it is like to be the Other. But this also has to be in the curriculum.”

Fernández says the College needs an inclusive pedagogy that will go beyond the false binary that either underrepresented students need to take on the burden of educating others or that it is the responsibility of other students to learn about underrepresented groups themselves. 

“We should be teaching this in classrooms, there should be guidance,” he said.

King’s visit comes at a time when questions of diversity and inclusion have shaken college campuses, including Middlebury College’s. He began his talk by acknowledging the large crowd that had come to hear him speak.

 “It is pretty much like this everywhere I speak and it isn’t because of me, it is because of the time,” he said. “People are seeking justice, especially students.” 

King said people are seeking justice because they can feel the country is at a critical historical turning point. He showed the audience several videos depicting police brutality and violence at Trump political rallies across the country. 

 “Today, we are in a steady decline,” he said. “Sometimes human beings are really great and sometimes they are Donald Trump.” 

During the talk, King also discussed at length the endorsement of Hillary Clinton by editors of The Atlantic magazine. The magazine has endorsed only two other candidates in its 159-year existence, both in times of national crisis: Abraham Lincoln in 1860 and Lyndon Johnson in 1964, a year after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. 

“What was powerful about this was not the endorsement, but their observation that they believed that we are now in one of those times,” he said. “That there was the civil war, there was the civil rights movement, and then there was three weeks ago.” 

 The Atlantic’s endorsement, the rise in police brutality and the volatile and problematic Trump campaign are all “symptomatic of being in the dip,” King said. “People misinterpret steady improvement of technology with steady improvement of humanity. But if human beings were steadily getting better, how do we explain the Transatlantic Slave Trade, or the Rwandan genocide or the 102 unarmed men, women and children that were shot and killed by police last year?”

Still, King ended the evening on a hopeful note.

“The good news is, any previous time we were in a dip, we always found our way out,” he said. “Human beings found their way out. Your efforts, as young students will lead us out of the dip.”