Joseph was the keynote speaker at Bates’ MLK Jr. Day: “From Selma to Ferguson: 50 Years of Nonviolent Dissent.”

An author, national civil rights commentator and Tufts University history professor, Joseph introduced himself as a native New Yorker. Growing up, his mother was a trade union worker.

“My first picket line was in New York City at age 8,” he said.

He comes to political activism with not just an academic perspective, but a real-world point of view.

When people celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. and grow angry that #BlackLivesMatter protests against police action disrupt traffic, they aren’t appreciating who King was, Joseph said.

Most remember King as a Nobel Peace Prize recipient who dined with royalty and served as an adviser to presidents.


The King most don’t remember is the one who, during the last three years of his life, was considered a “piranha” to mainstream circles. When King protested embedded, institutionalism racism, the Vietnam war, poverty and advocated for the redistribution of wealth, many thought he went too far, Joseph said. Even black leaders avoided him.

In 1966, 1967 and 1968, King received no more massive standing ovations.

“He ended up dying while helping 1,000 striking sanitation workers in Memphis protesting starvation wages,” Joseph said. “King believed it’s a sin for people to be living on starvation wages while living in the richest country in the world.”

In one of his last speeches, King said the greatness of the country was in the right to protest. The protests in Ferguson, Mo., as well as what the #BlackLivesMatter movement is doing echo from the civil rights movement, Joseph said.

When Barack Obama was elected president, some considered it the capstone of the civil rights movement.

“Rosa sat so Martin could walk, so Barack could run, so the children could fly,” Joseph said. “That sounds great.” 


But that’s not the reality, he said. Racism is embedded in high numbers of young black males in prison, in statistics that show that 28 percent of blacks in America are living below the poverty line.

He spoke of Tamir Rice, 12, who in November was shot and killed by police in Cleveland, Ohio, when playing with a toy gun at a park. After the boy was shot, video shows officers providing no assistance to him while tackling his distraught sister, “arresting her and putting her in a squad car,” Joseph said.

The country has what he called a “school-to-prison pipeline.”

“This is something real,” he said. “Young black boys and girls are getting arrested in public school as early as 5 and 6.” When white students act out, police are not called, he said. “They are not handcuffed, humiliated and thrown out of school in the same fashion.”

Nationally, the country “had a better conversation about racism in 1965 than we do now,” Joseph said. “Because in ’65, we admitted there were structures of racial segregation. Now we say it’s de facto segregation.”

There are public schools more segregated now than during the Brown decision, he said.


“We’ve got African-American unemployment rates double and triple their white counterparts,” even for blacks with college degrees, he noted.

There’s a new caste system that has rounded up hundreds of thousands of young black and brown men in a penal system that treats them differently because of their race, Joseph said.

And there’s an amazing wealth disparity.

“We don’t have a living wage in the United States,” Joseph said. “If the federal minimum wage could purchase as much as it did in 1968, it would be $12 an hour.” Racial economic inequality “is the story of our time.” 

As the nation celebrates King, “We don’t talk about the King who was willing to break with the White House and pursue an anti-poverty agenda. … We divorce the dreamer from the actual dream.”

What there is to be hopeful about is the #BlackLivesMatter movement, he said. Young people are calling attention to the gap between democracy as an ideal and a reality.


Like the ’60s, young people are not just protesting, Joseph said. “They are organizing on behalf of social, political, economic racial justice.”

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LEWISTON —  Author, historian and Tufts University history professor Peniel E. Joseph gave the keynote speech Monday morning at Bates College Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The theme was: “Reimagining Martin Luther King Jr. in the Age of Obama and the Age of Ferguson.”

Joseph also gave out some homework recommendations to make the day more meaningful. You don’t need to be a college student to follow his advice.

• See the movie “Selma”

King didn’t make the civil rights movement, the movement made him, Joseph said. “That’s what’s so special and extraordinary about the new movie ‘Selma,’ which I would implore everybody to see,” Joseph said Monday from Bates. The movie shows how the movement was a grassroots struggle, how ordinary citizens “black, white and everything in between came together.”


According to Flagship Cinemas Manager Nancy Holt in Auburn, she’s received numerous requests to show the film but it has a limited release. She has made a request for the movie, but as of Friday had not yet received confirmation it would come to Auburn.

It is playing at Cinemagic locations in Saco, Westbrook and South Portland, and at Regal theaters in Brunswick and Augusta.

• Read a good book: “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks” by Jeanne Theoharis.

The professor called it an “extraordinary biography” about the radical political activist who was run out of Montgomery, Ala.

• Google President John F. Kennedy civil rights speech on June 11, 1963

It was a national, televised speech on the same day that Alabama Gov. George Wallace took his famous stand to stop integration. Professor Joseph called JFK’s speech “the best speech on civil rights that any American president has ever given since Lincoln.”

Given months before Kennedy was assassinated, Joseph called it extraordinary because a sitting American president said civil rights was “part of our national creed,” Joseph said. “He’s using the language of the movement, of Martin Luther King Jr.”

Learn more about Joseph’s talk on MLK Jr. Day in Tuesday’s Sun Journal.

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