Harris-Perry discusses King's relevance during kickoff to a week of campus events

MLK events on January 17 have been canceled due to weather.

At the kickoff to Grand Valley's events to commemorate the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the keynote speaker asked if the civil rights leader remains relevant today.

Melissa Harris-Perry, who is the Maya Angelou Presidential Chair at Wake Forest University, told an audience gathered in the Kirkhof Center January 16 that it was "an easy yes" for her. Then Harris-Perry asked a more difficult question: How should we care about King and his legacy?

She took the audience, including West Michigan high school students, through her journey to answer that question. She said she is the descendant of enslaved people and the daughter of an interracial couple who both held university positions. Harris-Perry is also an author and former MSNBC program host.

Melissa Harris-Perry and President Mantella seated in chairs having a conversation
Melissa Harris-Perry, left, and President Philomena V. Mantella discuss King's legacy during an event January 16 in the Kirkhof Center.
Image credit - Amanda Pitts

The question and answer event was facilitated by President Philomena V. Mantella, who told the audience they were in for a treat as the scholar had relevant insight into King's work. Harris-Perry also gave a presentation on January 15 at the 38th annual West Michigan community celebration at Fountain Street Church in Grand Rapids.

Harris-Perry said she carried on King's legacy as a Wake Forest faculty member in 2016 by organizing a group of 30 diverse students to travel the country during that election year working for various candidates, attending caucuses, primaries and conventions, and hosting debate watch parties and other campus events leading up to the presidential election.

Students, she said, applied for this yearlong experience, "Wake the Vote," with the understanding they might have to work for candidates whom they disliked. "During that summer, they chose any candidate or issue they believe in and worked for that campaign," Harris-Perry said.

high school students line up at a microphone to ask questions
High school students line up at a microphone to ask Melissa Harris-Perry questions. The event kicked off GVSU's commemoration of the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Image credit - Amanda Pitts
Melissa Harris-Perry points while seated in a chair on stage during an event
Melissa Harris-Perry, the Maya Angelou Presidential Chair at Wake Forest University, answers a question from the audience January 16 during an event in the Kirkhof Center.
Image credit - Amanda Pitts

"It was the hardest but most important that I've ever done," she said.

Harris-Perry said one Wake the Vote student was undocumented but did not reveal that to the 29 other students until the end of the year. Other students who backed former President Trump came to the defense of the undocumented student.

"They said, 'We won't let them take you,'" she said, referring to the fear undocumented students and people had during that time that they might be forced to leave the U.S. "It gave me faith. I had felt like our American democracy was failing except for on our bus. They saw each other as humans."

A high school student asked a question at the end of the presentation about how they should start becoming involved in politics. Harris-Perry said as students they should start reading and becoming engaged at the local level: learn who the sheriff is, learn if your city has a citizens-review board for its police department.

"It's more than voting, it's innovating around voting," she said.

GVSU events continue with keynote speakers, two presentations of "Team Dream" and the MLK Day of Service and Solidarity on Saturday. Visit gvsu.edu/mlk for details.

four people standing, woman on left is laughing
From left are Melissa Harris-Perry, Bobby Springer, Phillip Todd and Alisha Davis.
Image credit - Amanda Pitts


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