All this week, the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. will be honored at Dartmouth College. Films, art exhibits, panel discussions, a multi-faith service, a candlelight vigil—all focus not just on civil rights history, but on the future of race relations in America.
One prominent speaker, Reverend Starsky Wilson, came from Missouri, where a young black man was killed by a white police officer who will not face criminal charges.
Wilson gave two speeches and led a panel discussion about the lessons from those events in Ferguson. He heads a non-profit foundation in St. Louis dedicated to the wellbeing of children. Wilson protested the decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson for the fatal shooting of Michael Brown. Now he co-chairs the Ferguson Commission formed by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon to promote social justice and bridge racial divides.
Wilson says his own family has endured deep loss.
“Not to police violence but to street violence," he explained over a cup of tea. "My own brother and my uncle to these things growing up so these have always been issues that have been formative for me, seeing violence inflicted on teens whether by teens or others,” Wilson said.
Wilson sees the events in Ferguson and their aftermath as pivot points for a twenty-first century civil rights movement. But first, he says, Ferguson has to heal and reform its own institutions, including law enforcement and the court system.
“And so we must not move too quickly away from Ferguson as a nation because if we don’t get policy change here, if you can’t win here, than you cannot translate it to other places,” he said.
At lunch on Friday afternoon Wilson talked with Dartmouth faculty members about how to teach and talk, both inside and outside the classroom, about Ferguson’s unfolding story.
“Absolutely,” he said. “Students at Dartmouth have to watch that; they have to be willing observers, they have to be participants. Faculty have to be the same. I’m pleased to see the number of schools that are translating this moment into course work.”
At the lunch discussion table was Leslie Henderson, associate dean for diversity at the Dartmouth Medical School. She says she wants medical students to understand the challenges minorities face when it comes to staying healthy and accessing care.
“Health disparities for African Americans are the equivalent of a jetliner full of people dropping out of the skies to their deaths every day 365 days a year, every year,” said Henderson.
The faculty group also talked about how to break down racial barriers on campus, which is much more diverse than it was when Martin Luther King gave a speech there in April, 1960. King started his speech with a joke about the legal troubles he was having with the state of Alabama.
In that scratchy recording, he quips he is "happy my criminal instincts were suppressed at least for a while so I didn’t have to be in jail at this time.”
It’s not clear, Dartmouth professor Henderson says, that line would seem amusing now, in a post-Ferguson world. But she hopes that humor can still occasionally defuse tensions, even as the hard work of fighting injustice moves forward.