As Rochester reckons with racial injustice and inequality alongside communities nationwide, antiracist scholar Ibram Kendi will step in to offer his insight.
Tomorrow, Kendi is slated to deliver the University of Rochester’s 20th Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Address. More than 3,000 people have registered to attend the free online event from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Kendi is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities and the founding director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research. A best-selling author, antiracist activist, and historian of race and discriminatory policy in America, he is widely known for his books “How to be an Antiracist” and “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” which won the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction.
“Our students and staff felt that Dr. Kendi’s work was important and timely, especially after the death of Daniel Prude and other race-related issues that have impacted the country, campus and local communities,” says Thomas Crews, assistant director of the Higher Education Opportunity Program and senior counselor of UR’s Office of Minority Student Affairs.
UR’s MLK address was instituted in 2001 to promote issues of diversity, freedom, civil rights, and social justice in order to commemorate King’s legacy. The event is hosted by the Office of the Minority Student Affairs and the Office of the President.
Historically, the MLK address has attracted influential speakers like civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, former Atlanta mayor and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young, and Symone Sanders, who recently was named senior adviser and chief spokesperson for Vice President Kamala Harris. It’s goal: to celebrate King’s legacy.
“We look to bring in speakers who bring with them various takes on social justice, race, equity and inclusion as it relates to Dr. King’s life’s work,” Crews says.
The Rochester Beacon posed a few questions to Crews. His responses are below.
ROCHESTER BEACON: This is the 20th year for the Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Address. What has contributed to its success and longevity?
THOMAS CREWS: Beginning with the President Thomas H. Jackson administration, university leadership received a request from the Minority Student Advisory Board (underrepresented student leaders on the River Campus) to create a university-wide event celebrating Dr. King’s legacy. This student effort resulted in the creation of the Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Address. From 2001 on, each of president Jackson’s successors have continued in their dedication and support of this annual event, which now includes President Sarah Mangelsdorf.
The longevity and success of the commemorative address can be directly (attributed) to the ongoing commitment of the Office of the President and the logistical work of the Office of Minority Student Affairs. Annually, OMSA pulls together members of the university community (students and staff) to form the MLK planning committee, who pull potential speakers from a list of university-wide recommended candidates. Speakers are then selected based on what is happening nationally, locally, and on campus. We look to bring in speakers who bring with them various takes on social justice, race, equity and inclusion as it relates to Dr. King’s life’s work.
ROCHESTER BEACON: The annual address has always attracted influential speakers. Why did you think of approaching Ibram Kendi this year?
CREWS: Two years ago, the Office of Minority Student Affairs developed a link on our departmental website requesting submissions of possible speakers for future commemorative address events. Dr. Kendi’s name was one of a number of speakers recommended by students, faculty and staff university-wide. This year the MLK Jr. Commemorative Address committee (which is made up of underrepresented student leaders as well as staff from various departments) selected Dr. Kendi based on the timeliness of his book, “How to Be an Antiracist.” Our students and staff felt that Dr. Kendi’s work was important and timely, especially after the death of Daniel Prude and other race-related issues that have impacted the country, campus and local communities.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Several organizations have had to transition to online events. What was the process like for this event? How will you measure success?
CREWS: We have the fortune of having an excellent event support team who have experience moving university-wide events from in-person to online platforms. For example, the event support team used their talents to support the “Difficult Conversations” series sponsored by Dean Donald Hall, as well as many other virtual programs. In short, the transition from in-person to virtual programming has been pretty smooth.
As for how we will measure success for the commemorative address, it’s always been our goal to fill Strong Auditorium, which seats well over 1,000 people. Due to the virtual nature of this year’s commemorative address, our current online registration numbers have exceeded 3,000. If our actual audience is half of those who are currently registered, we’ll consider it a highly successful event. Of course, we are extremely confident that Dr. Kendi will be engaging and informative in his presentation. This year, our Rochester weather will not hinder anyone from attending.
ROCHESTER BEACON: During the last year our community has been reckoning with racial injustice and inequality. What do you hope talks like these will do for our community?
CREWS: It is our hope that events like this will lead to eye-opening discourse regarding racial injustice and inequalities that continue to plague our community. We’d like this discourse to move beyond rhetoric and move to changes in policies and attitudes that have caused division among us as a nation, community and university.
Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor.