Bias Toward None

By Chad Galts & Zachary Black / March / April 1999
November 14th, 2007

Nervous about delivering the fourth annual Martin Luther King Jr. Lecture on January 27, the first day of classes after winter break, Elizabeth Martinez, a Chicana activist and writer, called her daughter for advice.

" 'Mom,' " her daughter said, " 'be provocative.' " Martinez, author of 500 Years of Chicano History and De Colores Means All of Us: Latina Views for a Multi-Colored Century didn't disappoint as she faced a packed house of students and faculty in the Salomon auditorium; others watched her on a simulcast in Sayles Hall. Her lecture, "Time for a New National Identity: What Multiculturalism Is and Isn't," called for a society made up of "a community of communities," rather than one defined in terms of the dominant culture.

Martinez challenged the "origin myth" of the United States as a nation born of Europeans stretching from Columbus through the Spanish-American War. People must recognize, she said, that the "foundation stones" of the United States include the genocide of Native Americans, the outrage of slavery, and the seizing of half of Mexico. Ridding ourselves of the myth, Martinez said, "is a real multiculturalism."

Though given a few days before the start of Black History month, Martinez's lecture kicked off a series of events devoted to the African-American experience. On February 18, Thomas Day, the district manager for the U.S. Postal Service, unveiled the new Malcolm X stamp at the Salomon Center. Day, who is white, admitted to some discomfort when he learned the stamp would be issued. He then went back and read about Malcolm X, and although this didn't completely allay his discomfort, it did convince him the stamp was needed. "The fact that I had to go and look," he said, "and others have had to go and learn more about Malcolm X is precisely the point of what this stamp is supposed to be doing." Then political analyst Juan Williams, author of the Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965, and a biography of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, spoke about the stamp as "an act of political conscience, a moral choice." He went on: "Stamps, much like family albums, are like mirrors we look into to see ourselves." The Malcolm X stamp, he said, was mark of the country's progress on race: "It is catching up with the fact that we understand Malcolm X is a member of the American family. How honest, how mature of us to finally make our own trip to Mecca - to see love where before we only saw a crazy man."

And on February 16, U.S. Congressman and civil-rights hero John Lewis received a standing ovation as he was introduced to another Salo-mon audience. Delivering the third annual Noah Krieger '93 Memorial Lecture, Lewis spoke on "The Civil Rights Movement: Past, Present, and Future." It was forty-three years to the day when Lewis stood in a church pulpit in Macedonia, Alabama, and delivered his first sermon. In Salomon, he spoke using a preacher's parables:

"I grew up on a farm about fifty miles from Montgomery, Alabama," he said. "My father was a sharecropper. When I was four, my father had saved 300 dollars to buy ten acres of land. It was my responsibility to take care of the chickens, and I fell in love with them. At Brown I know you're very smart . . . But you don't know anything about raising chickens."

After describing the proper care of chickens, Lewis continued: "As a child, I wanted to be a minister, so I asked Santa Claus to bring me a Bible and I learned to read." He began to practice reading the Bible aloud and preaching. "We would gather in the yard - my brothers, sisters, cousins, and the chickens. They would shake their heads and never say Amen, but I'm convinced they listened to me better than some of my colleagues in Congress. At least they produced something."

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March / April 1999