|Activist King brings his powerful words to Duke|
|Published Friday, January 25, 2019|
DURHAM – After three years as his mantra, activist and journalist Shaun King soberly abandoned his promise of justice to families reeling from police killings of loved ones – black, unarmed men, women and children – for fear of lying.
“‘Hold on. Hang in there. We’re gonna get justice for your family,’” King recalled saying to dozens of families. “I never could have imagined that each and every one of those families would be denied justice.
“It was a pivotal moment for me...realizing that if I told them that, it might be a lie.” Instead, he acknowledged the “obstacles were so severe, so outrageous, that the hurdles were so hard to overcome.”
King spoke Wednesday night at Duke University’s Reynolds Theater as part of its weeklong 2019 Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration.
King’s social media advocacy and Black Lives Matter activism brands him among the most powerful voices in the social justice movement, working to spread awareness, not only about injustice but also about anti-black crime. King’s work has helped change laws, oust politicians and elect new ones. And his efforts led to the arrest of perpetrators, including white supremacists who beat a black man at a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and a man suspected of shooting 7-year-old Jazmine Barnes in Texas earlier this month.
At Duke, King called on his study of history and how change actually works to share insight on “where we are in our country right now, how we got here and how to get out of where we are.”
“We are at a deeply disturbing point in American history,” he said. Turning to the recent confrontation in Washington, D.C., during pro-life and other rallies between black Hebrew Israelites, Native Americans and “white, Trump-supporting teenagers” from Kentucky, he added, “There was no way that that situation was going to work out well, and there were adults there who should have intervened and didn’t. “And it was a mess.”
It certainly was not a heroic moment deserving of an invitation to the high school students to visit the White House, King said. “Those kids aren’t heroes,” he added. “It’s just a peculiar time.”
King, a former reporter for the New York Daily News, is a columnist for The Intercept and a writer-in-residence at Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project. To advocate for progressive candidates for district attorney, King co-founded Real Justice PAC. In November, King announced a plan to re-launch The North Star, a newspaper founded by Frederick Douglass in 1847. He also is writing a book, expected to be published in Jan. 2020.
King took on social justice five years ago when a friend emailed him a video of Eric Garner’s public death during a chokehold by a New York police officer who ignored his multiple pleas of “I can’t breathe.” Garner, unarmed, was suspected of illegally selling single cigarettes.
Before long, King left his job as a communications director for an environmental organization to focus all his efforts toward social media-driven campaigns to widen awareness.
Then came the police killing of unarmed, 18-year-old Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, followed by John Crawford, Tamir Rice, Ezell Ford, and so on and on, King said. Justice denied in campaigns for justice and social good turned King to the work of pioneer German historian Leopold von Ranke, who sought to understand trends in human behavior in order to understand what would likely come next.
von Ranke’s work revealed that while technology steadily improved, humanity did not. Instead, humanity showed peaks of greatness followed by valleys of doom. Often, King said, “When there is an innovation that disturbs the primary people in power, ugliness follows.”
For example, he said, emancipation was followed by lynchings; the civil rights movement was followed by mass incarceration; and the election of the country’s first black president led to the election of one of its most divisive presidents in history.
“We are in a dip in the quality of humanity in this country,” King said. “We will remain in that dip until we organize and fight our way out of it. You have to make a decision that you’re not going to stay here. You have to say, ‘I’m going to help us fight our way out of here.’”
Ben Reese, Duke’s vice president for institutional equity who has helped spearhead the university’s MLK week for about 18 years, said the annual observance intentionally goes beyond reflection on King’s legacy.
“More importantly, it is to re-energize us to act,” said Reese, who will retire from Duke in May after more than two decades. “It’s not a time to sit back.”
King echoed Reese, urging students to be proud of Duke, but to hold Duke accountable, saying the university “tries hard to get it right,” but “it has not arrived.”
King’s message was loud and clear to Deborah Stroman, UNC-Chapel Hill professor of Racial Equity and Leadership in School of Public Health: “We need to organize,” she said, applauding King’s use of a timeline to outline a path to digging out of the dip of humanity. “He is one of those bright lights that more people in America need to hear from.”
Corey Pilson, a Duke junior studying political science and documentary studies, said King’s voice was needed. “Duke needs to hear voices that shake things up sometimes,” Pilson, 21, said. “Shaun King did that.”
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