Speaking to near 300 audience members in the Marshall Student Center Ballroom, Soledad O’Brien spent Tuesday night examining where the state of equality in the U.S. now stands, 40 years after the death of Martin Luther King Jr.
O’Brien, a journalist best known for her work with CNN, started by reflecting on how King is interpreted through media and shaped as a political tool to fit into different world views.
“People talk about what MLK would say, what he would tweet,” she said. “The great news is we don’t have to guess, we don’t have to spin. We know from MLK’s writings what he felt were the most urgent issues of our time.”
Like Mahatma Gandhi, O’Brien said King was a modest man who stayed firm when most men would run. In his humility, he became iconic.
“He was inspired by the moment,” O’Brien said. “He made me feel like anyone could do great things.”
The simple, yet powerful words of King became the treatise of the Civil Rights Movement and words to live for anyone, even those living in other countries.
“When people cry for justice, there’s a reason they always reference MLK,” O’Brien said.
The phrase most referenced is from King’s 1963 speech at the Washington D.C. Civil Rights March where he declared, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed…”
But, O’Brien said, people get swept away in the dream imagery of those lines, forgetting that King’s speech is, in fact, a discomforted critique of the country’s failure to live up to the notion that all are created equal.
Curious to answer whether the U.S. lives up to those dreams today, O’Brien said she created 2008’s “Black in America” series on CNN to measure the progress of racial equality.
“Our goal was to drill deep and tell stories of individuals and the impact of King’s impact on the community,” she said. “What did their lives say about opportunity for African-Americans?”
O’Brien showed a clip of the latest episode, titled “Black in America: Black and Blue,” which focused on New York Police’s stop-and-frisk laws, criticized for singling out young African-American males to be searched for contraband or weapons.
The 19-year-old African-American man in the video complained that police had searched him at least 100 times, especially outside the college he attends. The explanation he said most police gave was that he “fit a description.”
Near the end of the clip, the teenager vents to his mother about the difficulty of not fighting back against police when his head is constantly slammed against the wall. The mother pleads that a man resists not with his fists, but with his mind.
After the clip ended, O’Brien said her goal of telling stories through journalism is to humanize those who have been dehumanized by the status quo, whether because of their race, gender or religion.
“It’s about not stripping people of their humanity,” she said. “The reason people come to protest or come to riot is because they get tired of being treated like they aren’t human.”
But first, O’Brien said protesters must ask themselves what they are fighting for. She further charged the audience to ask themselves what they have done to uphold the values of King.
“It’s the same issues that Dr. King grappled with 60 years ago,” O’Brien said. “How do we bring justice and humanity to those without a microphone or a platform?”
Ultimately, O’Brien said King’s dream was one and the same as the American dream: the equal opportunity of freedom and prosperity for all Americans.
“The fight was about being true in a promise,” she said. “A promise made in the very words our founding fathers wrote.”
O’Brien was the first of three University Lecture Series (ULS) speakers this spring semester. Scheduled for Feb. 12, the second speaker is John Bul Dau, who was featured in the 2006 documentary “God Grew Tired of Us” about the Lost Boys of Sudan.
According to her contract, O’Brien’s lecture cost $50,000 and was paid for by the Center for Student Involvement, host of ULS.