American philosopher and political activist Cornel West discussed Martin Luther King’s true radical legacy compared to the popularly sanitized version at an event during Penn's MLK symposium.
The 20th Annual Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Lecture in Social Justice, which premiered on Wednesday as a pre-recorded video due to the COVID-19 pandemic, featured a conversation between West, a professor of the practice of public philosophy at Harvard University, and Center for Africana Studies Director Margo Crawford. Penn President Amy Gutmann introduced the event by condemning former President Donald Trump for inciting a riot at the Capitol and urging audience members to remember King's legacy as a guide.
"An attempted insurrection of the nation’s Capitol was fomented by none other than the president of the United States,” Gutmann said.
In her official statement on the Capitol storming, Gutmann did not make any mention of Trump or acknowledge the University’s connection to the 1968 Wharton graduate.
Following Gutmann's introduction, West began the lecture by noting that King was not an isolated voice, rather one of many individuals from a 400-year tradition of ‘wounded healers.’ West said King’s commitment to community, family, and faith, worked in opposition to ‘spiritual decay,’ which he described as the loss of integrity, honesty, and decency in favor of power, wealth, and supremacy.
He said that spiritual decay remains a problem today, as evidenced by the high percentage of voters across racial and gender groups that supported Trump, whom he described as a “neofascist gangster.”
West, who published "The Radical King" in 2015, said King was largely unpopular among both white and Black people at the time of his death. Still, he talked about King’s belief in the connection between justice and love.
“There’s a humility, not a self-righteousness, that goes hand in hand with the struggle for justice and so [justice] is about love,” West said. “The struggle for justice is not an abstract idea. It is a force in the world.”
West said Black success is usually measured by the performance of the Black professional class or celebrities, rather than Black poor and working people, who are often the force behind the success. He said his own success was the result of King’s assassination and succeeding nationwide riots, which resulted in Harvard’s decision to admit more Black students, including himself.
West also referenced King’s quote, “The riot is the language of the unheard,” and connected it to the Black Lives Matter protests which took place across the country this summer. West said the "unheard" are often those who are suffering and hurting. He added that it is the duty of the Black elite to use their position to lift every voice and learn to listen to “those on the ground.”
Crawford, who took part in last year's MLK lecture, wrote in an email to The Daily Pennsylvanian that the focus of this year’s lecture and symposium did not change significantly from previous years due to the Black Lives Matter movement or the COVID-19 pandemic, because past speakers have always been committed to highlighting the forces contributing to anti-Black racism.
The lecture was part of Penn's 26th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Symposium, which was entirely virtual for the first time this year. The symposium spans from Jan. 16 to Feb. 5, and features donation projects, a college admission workshop, virtual vigil, and Jazz music.
Gale Garrison, the associate director of the Center for Africana Studies, wrote in an email to The Daily Pennsylvanian that she believes the symposium embodies and continues King’s work in social justice.
“Programs celebrating the memory of Dr. King often portray him in a one-dimensional manner," Garrison wrote. "Our program elevates our understanding of the depth and width of King and the intellectual, social, religious, and cultural traditions that both produced him and the movement he led.”