“It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence. That is where we are today.” Decades after the ground-breaking words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were spoken, they continue to hold an immensity of power and truth. 2018 marks the 50th anniversary since King’s assassination for being a leading figure in the civil rights movement, and the 35th year since the national declaration of the federal holiday. In honor of the commemoration of this holiday this past Monday, the Office of Intercultural Engagement hosted an open discussion based on Dr. King’s famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech for Spartans to share the different perspectives about the meaning of reaching the mountaintop.
Among an intimate group of five students, OIE Assistant Director, Carla Fullwood facilitated the discussion, first asking students to share their knowledge about the history of the speech, which was delivered in Memphis right before Dr. King’s death. After several incites were given into the details of the speech and a few more students filled the space, the conversation began shifting towards the perspective of economic unity and collective activism in the black community. Keeping the conversation centered on the speech, which was spoken to empower sanitation workers and black businesses, more started sharing their ideas on the progress of black businesses in today’s society.
One student, a business administration major, sparked the dialogue around black businesses and the challenges they face by noting, “It’s impossible to solely support Black business when you’re operating under a white system… we’re trying, quote unquote, ‘to be like white people.”’ Thoughts started bouncing off of one another as others added their personal experience in seeing the legal inequities and how they have severely stunted the success of the black community.
With more incites being added to fuel the talk, the question began to arise: what are the obstacles holding the black businesses back in the economic world?
Education became the key answer to that question. “It all points back to education,” said one student, “…That’s really what we need in order to keep [the black community and other minorities] afloat.”
Another added his thought of education as a bank, saying, “You can stand next to a bank, but that doesn’t mean you have money… Yes, there’s money in the bank, but I don’t have the access because I can only access what I’ve put in.” He pointed out that, even with the knowledge of the world at our fingertips, education isn’t necessarily “easy” access for those who have been denied it because of racism.
A few pointed out that Dr. King, however, said in his Mountaintop speech, “Never stop and forget that collectively – that means all of [the black community] together – collectively we are richer than all the nations in the world, with the exception of nine.” It’s a statement that encouraged the black community to take action against the injustice they face, which students reflected on in relation to how one is to advance justice when there is the feeling that their voices go unheard. While many expressed the feeling that they don’t believe that the government will listen to black voices, one speaker argued, “The government plays a huge roll. If [the black community] goes out and votes and partakes in the government, our voices will be heard.”
As the conversation neared an end, students shared their thoughts as to how change can start taking place with black businesses.
Fuller brought the conversation back full-circle, asking, “Have we reached the mountaintop yet?” With a pause of silence to ponder on the question, someone brought up that the mountaintop is different for everyone; one person chimed in to say that his grandmother’s mountaintop, for example, was owning an electric stove, at which everyone giggled. Another concluded that it is a mountain range rather than a mountaintop; we may reach the summit, but there will always be a valley ahead.
Dr. King’s mountaintop was an astounding victory in fighting discrimination, and our generation is now several mountains ahead, trudging through the valley to find the peak.