LEWISTON, Maine — Americans who fail to acknowledge the role racism has played in shaping U.S. history and culture miss the true legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., scholar and author Khalil Gibran Muhammad said in Maine on Monday.
Muhammad’s remarks took on added significance, just days before Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president, leaves office to be replaced by Donald Trump, who on Saturday castigated Rep John Lewis, D-Georgia, who helped organize and lead marches with King, the civil rights leader honored by Monday’s federal holiday.
In 16-year-old Hodan Musse, Muhammad’s words roused a sense of determination to fight even harder against the injustice she encounters every day.
Musse was one of a number of Lewiston High School students to join the Bates community and others in Gomes Chapel for the keynote address during Bates’ commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Muhammad, who spoke on, “No Reparations Without Racial Education: Martin Luther King on the Tyranny of Ignorance,” said King believed young people must learn the role that slaves played in the development of the American economy, that the majority of the country’s founders and early presidents owned slaves, and that black slaves “literally built the wall of Wall Street.”
But even today, textbooks and curriculum continue to exclude significant contributions by African Americans, he said, leading to citizens who are not historically literate.
“Slavery is not an aberration in the American story,” Muhammad said. “It is the quintessential American story.”
Drawing from his Sunday op ed in the New York Times, he said, “There is no office in the land to which an African-American can ascend — from mayor to attorney general and the presidency — that will serve as a magical platform for saving black people and our nation’s soul from its racist past … Instead we must confront structural racism and the values of our institution.”
Muhammad, a professor of history, race and public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School and the Suzanne Young Murray Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies, is the author of, “The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America.”
He spoke Monday as part of Bates’ commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, an event that also includes a debate between teams from Bates and Morehouse College.
Musse said she’s attended Bates’ program marking this holiday for years. “It’s a day to remember what happened in the past shouldn’t be repeated,” she said.
But fellow Lewiston High student Amina Aden, 17, said that Trump’s impending inauguration on Friday is a sign that that’s exactly what’s happening.
“We came so far, and then this year we kind of crashed and failed,” Aden said.
“It’s like history is repeating itself,” Musse said.