LEWISTON, Maine — Journalist and civil rights activist Shaun King, a leader in the Black Lives Matter movement, traveled to Bates College on Tuesday to deliver a message to students and community members, who he acknowledged are already aware and working for social change.
“Yo, Bates!” King called to applause and shouts. “Bates is kinda woke a little bit! What’s up?”
The senior political justice writer for The New York Daily News, King said the country is on the brink of a modern civil rights movement similar to those that led to the Civil War and civil rights movement of the 1960s.
King spoke for an hour to the crowd packed into the college’s Peter J. Gomes Chapel — named for the 1965 graduate, a noted African American author and preacher — acknowledging that Bates has historically “embraced” social change. King noted that he taught earlier Tuesday in Professor Yannick Marshall’s “Black Lives Matter” course.
During his talk, “Why Colin Kaepernick Is Right to Take a Knee: Racial Injustice and Police Brutality,” King said the quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers is one of many taking action after a year that saw “102 unarmed black men, women and children shot and killed by policemen in this country.”
William McKinley, who served from 1897 to 1901, was president “the last time 102 African Americans were lynched [in one year] in this country,” he said.
King showed video from Texas and South Carolina of teens allegedly assaulted by police, and said, “Right now we are in a dip in the quality of humanity. Some of you have felt it — that’s why you have anxiety, that’s why you have sadness … but here’s the powerful thing about a dip … it’s not permanent … but a dip could last two years or 200 years. It lasts as long as the effort and fierce opposition to it [allows].”
Citing examples including the transatlantic slave trade, the Holocaust and the 1994 Rwandan genocide, King said, “Human beings are absolutely not getting better and better … The quality of human beings is like, sometimes human beings are amazing, and sometimes you have Donald Trump.”
King cited Douglas Blackman’s “Slavery by Another Name,” Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow,” and Ava DuVerney’s film documentary “Thirteenth” while advocating for changing — or reinventing — the country’s prison system.
He said the nation’s prison system was created after state and federal governments decided to “criminalize blackness” and disproportionately target, arrest and imprison African Americans to allow some cities and corporations to profit from the free labor of prisoners.
Pointing to a recent endorsement by The Atlantic of Hillary Clinton for president — only the third endorsement ever by the publication, along with Abraham Lincoln just prior to the Civil War and Lyndon B. Johnson over Barry Goldwater — King said the country is in “a dip” in its long history of cultural peaks and valleys, and poised for a new, modern civil rights movement similar to those that prompted the Civil War and the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
King said people don’t recognize that they’re making history as it happens.
“They didn’t call it the civil rights movement in 1955,” he said. “They were just black folks who were tired of being humiliated … it was not about black folks wanting to sit by white folks [at a lunch counter]. Listen, the food the black folk were cooking was better than the food the white folk were cooking. It was about being able to guarantee the absence of humiliation if [they wanted to eat there].”
Asked by a Bates student about “the role of white people in the movement,” King said they must accept responsibility for racism and accept responsibility for working to end it.
“You will always be more powerful and influential with your circle than he will,” he said. “Ask yourself, how can I leverage my family and my community to loosen the grip of [racism]?”
Furthermore, he pointed people to an Injustice Boycott expected to start on Dec. 5 designed to target corporations and cities — some in Maine, he told the Bangor Daily News — that profit from the unjust system.
King saved his comments about Maine’s Gov. Paul LePage until he spoke with media following the talk.
“I’m deeply disturbed by Maine’s governor,” King said. “I’ve written about him in the New York Daily News … he says things that stereotype African Americans and people of color. What I don’t think he understands is how it makes people of color feel … his words do damage.”