J. Adam Fenster, UR photographer

Before Melissa Harris-Perry delivered the Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Address on Thursday, Jan. 17, she sat down with a small group of students in the  Douglass Leadership House, talked, and listened. She is currently the host of her own show on MSNBC, a columnist for “The Nation,” and a professor at Tulane University.

“I went to college from age 16 to 20,” Harris-Perry told students prior to the talk. “And from 16 to 20, if a white person didn’t like me, I don’t suppose I gave a good giggly-wiggly.”

She paused to laugh with the audience, then continued on a serious note: “The challenge for us was the extent to which all of the black women’s leadership was race-based leadership, and how little we did around gender.”

Her comment provided a window into the theme of her address later that evening in Strong Auditorium. Speaking to a teeming crowd of students, faculty, and community members, Harris-Perry celebrated King as a collective effort, but she honed in on the effect that women had on his life and legacy.

“We’ve got to talk a little bit about how we can celebrate King and appreciate him, and yet recognize and critique his patriarchy at the same time,” she said.

Harris-Perry began her address with an image of the King Memorial in Washington, D.C. projected behind her: a 30-foot high towering relief of the man, arms crossed, alone.

The fault in the image, Harris-Perry pointed out, is that King was not alone. As a leader, his strengths were in his ability to collaborate, to bring attention to movements, connect and unite.

“I think the man who we know as King is in fact deeply influenced by the work of women who supported him sometimes, who challenge[d] him at other times, who critiqued him, who suffered, who mourned him, and who undoubtedly carried on the work of King after he was gone,” Harris-Perry said.

Throughout her speech, Harris-Perry brought the women of the civil rights movement to the foreground: Rosa Parks, Ella Baker, Elizabeth Eckford, Fannie Lou Hamer, and others.

Harris-Perry divulged these women’s roles ­­— harnessing media attention, spurring sociopolitical action, and expanding the movement.

Nevertheless, these women were overshadowed partners.

She imparted that the living memories of some civil rights leaders, such as Medgar Evers and King himself, would not exist without the active work of their widows. Myrlie Evers-Williams, who recently spoke at Obama’s Presidential Inauguration, lived on to become a renowned civil rights activist, as did Coretta Scott King.

“There is no way, despite whatever stories about infidelity may exist in the world about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” Harris-Perry said, “that that rock in D.C. should be of just him and that there should be no Coretta. It is appalling to imagine that there is no Coretta.”

The sway that women in mourning hold over popular opinion has not dwindled with time. Harris-Perry alluded to young mothers whose husbands were killed in the 9/11 attacks. She claimed that they now represent one of the most influential interest groups in American politics.

“There is no sustainability of any activist without a partner,” Harris-Perry said. “If [you] ever think [you] are seeing just a single person, you are not. You are always seeing a collective effort.”

She then switched to discussing the image of Barack Obama with First Lady Michelle, who she called “the main reason we like Barack.”

On the subject of Obama, Harris-Perry brought attention to the recent controversy over Susan Rice’s candidacy for Secretary of State. Rice, whose reputation took consecutive hits on various grounds, dropped out of consideration. The situation has led to some criticism of Obama, accused of disassociating with her out of cold-hearted political strategy.

Harris-Perry defended Obama by directly comparing this situation to one between King and Bayard Rustin, the architect of the March on Washington. Once Rustin was revealed as gay and communist, King severed ties with him. Rather than taking the moral high ground as we might expect, Harris-Perry said, King decided upon what would be the best strategy for the movement.

“When we think about King as human and not divine when we think about him as strategic, and not morally unassailable, he becomes more available to us,” Harris-Perry said. “We need not be perfect before we engage in altering American history.”

Burritt is a member of the class of 2013.



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