Friday, April 4, 2008
by Bruce Barry
on Fri, Apr 4, 2008 at 2:11 PM
“Why does the word racism have such an archaic ring to it?” The civil rights activist and academic Angela Davis put that question—and quite a few more—to an overflow crowd at Vanderbilt’s law school this afternoon to mark the 40th anniversary of the King assassination. Davis, who is professor of History of Consciousness (yes, I do have serious academic title envy over that one) at the University of California, Santa Cruz, lamented that King’s life is often “reduced to the narrative of a single individual with a dream.” We continue to imagine King’s movement “as only a civil rights movement,” she observed, when it was really a far broader enterprise—a “freedom movement” addressing war, poverty, labor rights, as well as discrimination, both in the U.S. and overseas. Davis accused neoliberals and conservatives of minimizing the impact of race by perpetuating a “flawed assumption that history doesn’t matter” when in fact “we continue to inhabit those histories” of race and racism.
Reasonable people can disagree over whether King deserves to be called “perhaps the most important figure in the pantheon of American democracy,” but I do know that hearing Angela Davis take up the question, and catching her glances exchanged with audience member James Lawson, Nashville’s civil rights icon-in-residence, felt like just the right way to spend an hour thinking about all that went down in Memphis 40 years ago today.