Rev. Sekou Speaks for MLK Day

Unfortunately, Moore Theater was not filled to capacity on the evening of Monday, January 16th when the College and the community alike gathered to pay tribute to American hero Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Sadder still, many of those in attendance were middle-aged members of the Upper Valley community and not Dartmouth students, many of whom likely took their entire day off without stopping to honor the legacy of the day’s namesake.

Reverend Sekou in Ferguson, Missouri (Photo Courtesy of Democracy Now)

Reverend Sekou in Ferguson, Missouri (Photo Courtesy of Democracy Now)

While the Reverend Osagyefo Sekou served as the keynote speaker for the program, themed “The Fierce Urgency of Now,” those in attendance also heard from a few other speakers who each put their own spin on the subject.

President Phil Hanlon ’77’s remarks centered on urging Dartmouth community members to take action and live Dr. King’s legacy, not just on Martin Luther King Day, but every day. He went on to take a very thinly veiled shot at President Donald Trump (as seems to be the fashion these days), asserting that “The Fierce Urgency of Now” comes from a widely-held belief that the recent administration change propelled us all into “a moment of particular risk.” A rousing speech from Hanlon, for sure.

into “a moment of particular risk.” A rousing speech from Hanlon, for sure.

Next up was Selome Ejigu ’17. She struck a very different tone on her speech. The senior was very critical of the administration, particularly an alleged racial bias in its hiring and tenure granting processes that leaves Dartmouth with fewer black professors than it should have. She also spoke out against alleged failures of the College to adequately support poor, black, brown, queer, and transgender students. In that vein, Ejigu dedicated her time behind the podium to those whose “now is always urgent.” She made several other assertions, describing Dr. King’s tragic assassination as an “execution,” calling out “racism, hyper-materialism, and militarism” as the current big three evils in the world. She then suggested a marriage of anti-racist work with anti-queerphobic (which turns up no spelling suggestions in my word processor) and anti-capitalist work in order to battle said evils. While fighting racism is a noble and important cause, we here at The Review strongly believe in the importance of capitalism, the economic system that provides more opportunities for socioeconomic advancement and stronger incentives for progress of any economic system currently known to man.

Ms. Ejigu was also quite focused on the specific plight of black women, like herself, compared to other minority groups. She asked the audience why people “mobilize to mourn black males, such as Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, but not black females.” The Review is not sure if there is any validity to that statement, but continues to believe that all lives matter and that the death of any law-abiding citizen is a tragic event.     

Ms. Ejigu also made sure to remind those in attendance that we should all thank a black woman who “spoke against the lack of blacks on campus,” “helped fight for freedom without thanks,” and “voted against President Trump.” According to exit polls conducted by The Washington Post however, around six percent of black women with a college degree and three percent of black women without a college degree voted for our current president. Also, The United States Election Project reported that forty one percent of the population (and, logic dictates, many black women) didn’t cast a vote any presidential candidate. It is impossible that every black woman voted against President Trump. Ms. Ejigu’s comments assuming the contrary, that a person would behave one way because of her race, are not only inaccurate, but also racist. The ridiculous double standard applied to profiling from the left and the sheer irony that a speaker at the Martin Luther King Jr. event was racially profiling blacks could warrant an entire separate article. 

Ms. Ejigu’s remarks also included hopeful and empowering advice for black students (not just women) at Dartmouth. She first reminded those in attendance to know their history, “because white supremacy only roots itself deeper when we [blacks] forget.” She also asked her fellow students of color to hold each other accountable and love their blackness. Unlike much of the rest of the speech, which only preached further division, these words truly honored Dr. King’s legacy.   

There is a reason that Reverend Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou is a keynote speaker. Rev. Sekou really knows how to work a crowd. His tone and speaking style are reminiscent of Dr. King himself, organic, energetic, soulful, and inspiring. Among many other things, the Reverend’s bio introduces him as a Professor of Preaching at the Seminary Consortium of Urban Pastoral Education in Chicago and the lead singer of Rev. Sekou & the Holy Ghost. Both positions show in his speaking style, which certainly incorporates elements of preaching and song. The combination held the audience in rapt attention.

Sekou’s speaking style was incredible, but some of his commentary left at least one audience member quite confused. His address to a “Dartmouth University” focused on an American leader often known by his three-letter moniker. However, those three letters were not MLK, the focus of the event, but rather DJT. Sekou railed against President Trump, declaring that “regardless of political views,” “our civilization is in a fundamental crisis,” under his leadership. He declared that the businessman was “against meritocracy” and that Secretary Hillary Clinton was “more qualified than George Washington to be President of the United States.” Referring to the growing resistance movement to the current administration, Sekou declared that history will remember that “when a potential demagogue came to power, a generation of gay, lesbian, bi, and trans people will have stood together against him.”

The Reverend also spoke extensively about at least six transgender people he knew of who committed suicide because of the way the election went; we at The Review consider this a tragedy, but fail to see any anti-LGBT rhetoric from the new president.

Reverend Sekou’s remarks were not wholly limited to the election, however. Sekou did address Dr. King’s legacy and implored those in the audience to help improve our society. He reminded the audience that social movements often suffer from a schism between the number of talkers and the number of doers, joking that “If all the people who said they were on the bridge in Selma were, the thing would have collapsed.” With that in mind, Sekou urged those in attendance to resist utilitarianism, market forces and commoditization, blaming, like Ejigu, the world’s problems on the evil of money. Citing his agreement with Dr. King’s beliefs (accurately), Sekou proposed a transition to socialism in the United States as a fix for many of our economic and social ills. In the end, Sekou used King, a more widely known and respected figure, to rally support for his own ideas of the way our country should work.

Reverend Sekou then spoke at length about the steps that members of the audience had to take in order to “take care of democracy” under Trump, such as “not integrating into the system” and perpetuating a “radical transformation” of our current government (If you had trouble making sense of that last sentence, you are not alone).

That was just one of the Reverend’s memorable quotes from the evening. The Reverend was also on point during the Q and A that followed the show. When asked how he deals with the constant pressures of civil rights work and being black in America, the Reverend admitted that he was constantly on edge, saying “at any moment you could read: little black preacher runs in and shoots up a bunch of white folk” before professing that he finds joy in his work and has “a good dose of I don’t give a f**k.” He later admitted that he didn’t remember the answer to a subsequent question because he “did a lot of drugs in the 60s.”

Q & A gems aside, Sekou did make some very interesting points. He described what he calls a latent curriculum, the things that schools teach but don’t explicitly include in the curriculum. Sekou hinted that, through either exclusion from curriculum, normative constructs, or the chosen professors, schools often teach biases against certain races and belief systems. One particularly powerful example he recounted occurred when he was speaking at a university, mistaken for a janitor, and asked for a chair. Sekou brought the student the chair and then walked to the front of the hall and delivered his lecture. This is an example, says Sekou, of the preconceived notions we all hold and that latent curriculums instill in us. That was the more valuable kind of insight offered by Sekou.

Perhaps the most memorable part of the evening was the performance Reverend Sekou gave with Jay-Marie Hill, a San Francisco-based activist and musician. What started as a sort of spoken word performance over Hill’s rhythmic bass, became a spirited sing along. Sekou brilliantly involved the audience, inspiring a few in attendance to get up and dance in the aisles while singing lyrics about “the racist police” and a chorus proclaiming “the revolution has come, we’ve already won.”  While it is unclear that either of those two assertions hold water, it was spirited and fun for many involved.

The bottom of the event’s program outlined the celebration goals, which were “to honor and celebrate Dr. King’s life” in a number of different ways. How well did the committee achieve that goal? Regarding the goal that “members of our community may understand and value his [King’s] transformational politics and actions, the broader context of his leadership in the civil rights movement, and the ongoing power of this legacy,” the event was a failure. Compared to proclamations of victory, and discussions of the plights of highly specific subgroups of society, Dr. King received very little attention. In fact, really the only time anyone spoke of him (outside of broad generalities) was Sekou’s celebration of his socialist ideals.

As for the goal “that members of our community may be inspired and motivated to apply Dr. King’s philosophy and approach to our own lives and work,” the event was also a failure. Sadly, King’s principles of nonviolence and inclusivity received little airtime. There was little mention of applying either principle to anything besides active protest, an action that doesn’t constitute the daily lives or work of many of our community members.

The event was a qualified success in its goal to call members of the community “to address the causes and impact of social inequality and injustice—individually, locally, and globally.” While the program certainly did call attention to several alleged social inequalities, all were presented through a lens of race, and to a lesser degree class. Each problem was painted as a result of domination by white, male elites—at one point, Sekou referred to “white folks,” “straight men” and “comrades” separately. This created a divisive, often inaccurate image of the problems of the world and largely failed to “address the [real] causes and impacts” of the many real inequities within our society. That bias, combined with a few questionable claims, is best summed up by one of Reverend Sekou’s most disturbing quotes of the evening: “We must seize history and bend it to our will.”