By Jill Campbell
He was raised by two educators. His mother a high school public school teacher, his father a professor of sociology. His parents insisted that he and his two siblings engaged in community affairs to impact the lives of other people. On Monday night that same man, Dr. Ravi K. Perry, strode up to the podium at center stage in Fuller Arts Center to speak at the Springfield College annual Martin Luther King Jr. Lecture.
As Dr. Calvin Hill exited stage right following the lecture’s introduction, Perry, credited with a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Michigan, and a Masters and Ph.D in political science from Brown University, firmly shook hands and briefly embraced Springfield’s Vice President of Inclusion and Community Engagement. Then he turned to face the audience.
The stage lights overhead lit up the figure from Toledo, Ohio. He was dressed in all black, a collared button down shirt residing under a bright red blazer. A thin goatee was trimmed neatly across his face under a head dotted with stubble. Perry’s brown eyes scanned the audience for a brief second as he stepped behind the podium. Then he spoke, enveloping the room in his bold and sure voice that emphasized his imperative message.
Perry mainly focused on present day issues and how they connected with Martin Luther King’s dreams towards an equal society. The central argument of the lecture entailed the present day attitudes towards King’s message. Perry contended that society today tends to use King’s dreams as reasoning to convey a laxness towards present day issues of marginalization.
“We have to start thinking about what minority success actually means,” he said. “We have a tendency to believe that the freedom project is over because we see the positive examples of black and minority achievement. It’s therefore easy for us to feel that King’s legacy must be complete. But we also know that police have killed more unarmed citizens in the first two months of 2017 than ever recorded.”
There is a conception alive that reasons, because Barack Obama was able to become the 44th president of the United States, King’s dream can be considered “realized” and no additional change is needed. Perry argued that King’s call to make justice a reality can get lost in complacency.
“[Activists] fight because we must do justice,” Perry said. “We fight because black lives actually do matter. But for many of us, that’s just a saying. For most of us it’s just a story line we see in our armchairs watching TV. And that’s not leadership. We must go further.”
Perry elaborated on one of King’s statements – the ‘most pressing question’ of ‘what are you doing for others?’
“We can’t reduce King to a romanticized view of American democracy that somehow absolves us from our responsibility,” said Perry. “If we claim to be about racial justice, we must be about doing justice. Don’t just stay woke. Be awake. You can’t stay woke if you weren’t awake to begin with.”
Perry described America’s tendency to view King’s dream through ‘rose-colored glasses.’
“We love his dream speech,” Perry said. “But he’s so much more. We need to stop celebrating King and start doing his work in order to do him justice.”
After introducing this mindset, Perry transitioned into explaining how this affects America in the 2010s. He mainly achieved this by breaking down the 2016 presidential election – what the results said about the country’s mindset towards equality, and why it was Donald Trump who became president.
“We must be willing to be self-critical so that we can learn from our mistakes,” Perry began with. “We cannot escape our miscalculations like many of us are currently doing in respect to the election and the current occupant in the White House.”
Perry however, did not pin the outcome of the election solely on what he described as “white racism.” He also introduced the term, “post-civil rights era progressive activist privilege,” which he defines as “the false belief that people of color have the luxury of choosing individual beliefs over what’s best for the group as a whole.”
Perry expressed his frustration regarding the mindset that the country could have beat hate in the 2016 election, but instead fought one another, and allowed a candidate who was publically endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan, to succeed the first African-American president in U.S. history.
“People of color could have built a firewall against this outcome, and we did not,” Perry said. “Too many of us stayed home.”
To conclude his point, Perry explained the meaning of Trump’s election and the enthusiasm displayed towards his agenda.
“Optimism towards Trump’s speeches tells you how easily we can move beyond racism – how easily we can move beyond sexism, and misogyny and xenophobia.”
Before closing the lecture, Perry reminded his audience what was at stake beyond the sole conversation of the election. He described the injustices that King was attempting to defeat.
“It’s a real challenge for the people of color, for the women, for queer people, for the marginalized, for people with disabilities to get over internal oppression when you are told from the beginning that you are an error, that you are inferior, that you are a mistake,” he said. “That will wear down on people’s psyche as a group of people if it is allowed.”
After resurfacing the stories of young people leading the Black Panther Party, SNCC, marches nationwide, and acting during the civil rights movement alongside King, Perry hopes that through the presentation, students on campus will be inspired to take action towards equality through politics.
“I hope students are encouraged to participate in the political process,” Perry said following the lecture. “We have to take [politics] seriously – it’s a serious responsibility. What government looks like is a result of our actions or inactions, and we need young people to realize that the time is now for them to lead.”