The Struggle for Social Justice

On January 15, 2018 – the date that would have been the 89th birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – the Middlesex community remembered his courageous commitment to social justice and, at the same time, reflected on the civil rights issues and inequities that remain today.

The full day of events featured three distinguished speakers: Dr. C.T. Vivian, who worked alongside Dr. King as a senior strategist for the civil rights movement and received a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013; renowned poet and scholar Professor Sonia Sanchez, who knew both Dr. King and Malcolm X from her work as an activist with the Congress of Racial Equality; and Marc Bamuthi Joseph, a dynamic writer, performer, and educator who was among the very first recipients of a United States Artists Rockefeller Fellowship.

As Middlesex’s Director of multicultural and community development, Pascale Musto opened the day’s program with the words of Dr. Vivian: “Leadership is found in the action to defeat that which would defeat you…You are made by the struggles that you choose.” Expanding on that statement, Pascale asked students first to think about their own personal struggles and then to consider broader ones. “We live in a truly challenging moment in our nation’s history,” he noted, as battles of many kinds – for citizenship, for gender and racial equality, for freedom of speech and religion – dominate the lives of many. “Dr. Vivian, Professor Sanchez, and Mr. Joseph have dedicated their lives to the struggle for civil rights and social justice,” Pascale said. “What will your struggle be?”

For the first half of the morning, Mr. Joseph engaged his Middlesex audience with a unique performance style that combined hip-hop, poetry, storytelling, and teaching in the effort to illustrate the legacy of slavery and the problem of systemic racism. “I’m down to work with anyone,” he said, “but I’m not down with having to fear for my own or my son’s safety.” Quoting civil rights activist Ella Baker, Mr. Joseph stated, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest,” adding “We believe in freedom for us all.” Though the Revolutionary War took place from 1775 to 1781, he views the American Revolution as “an ongoing phenomenon” or process. “All of us are better than our worst day,” he suggested. “I don’t really believe in a binary system; I like to believe that all of us want to help.”

After a short break, students and faculty dispersed to attend one of the three master classes given by the guest speakers. While Mr. Joseph worked with students in the Danoff Recital Hall, Professor Sanchez treated her audience to a poetry reading in the Terry Room, also relating the background of or inspiration for her selections. In the Chapel, after showing a video of Dr. Vivian striving against segregation practices in the 1960s, he asked students to share their thoughts about what they had just seen and how it made them feel, encouraging them to keep working for true equality – the dream that Dr. King famously articulated in 1963, but that has not yet been fully realized.

In the afternoon, the community reconvened in the Chapel, where Mr. Joseph interviewed Dr. Vivian and Professor Sanchez, asking them about their resilience and perseverance throughout their decades-long commitment to social justice. Dr. Vivian affirmed, “I have found that the only way you can be deeply caring is by making the nation live up to what it says it is. All of us need to live up to the ideals of the nation, if we care about it.” Professor Sanchez additionally stressed the need “to talk about self-love,” explaining, “You cannot extend love if you don’t love yourself. I have to love this hair and this nose and this skin.”

In summing up, Mr. Joseph was appreciative that the day’s program “hasn’t been just quoting King and has touched on a wide spectrum of ideas.” Leading everyone in chanting, “Resist,” Professor Sanchez brought to mind another of Dr. King’s memorable statements: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.”