Emma Soler and Ursula Rall, lead a discussion titled “Enduring Values? A discussion of Abolition, Enslavement and Bates History” on Monday during Bates College’s MLK 2020 event in Lewiston. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

LEWISTON — For Martin Luther King Jr. Day, hundreds of people gathered at Bates College to delve into issues related to bias and privilege.

They dug so deep that some wound up questioning whether it might be necessary to find a new name for the college.

Students researching the thin records of the early years of the historic liberal arts institution discovered that one of its early donors, Benjamin Bates, secured at least part of his wealth before the Civil War buying cotton picked by enslaved people in the South for use in his mills.

Two seniors, Emma Soler and Ursula Rall, led an intense workshop session focused in part on what it means for a college founded by abolitionists to have a hefty share of its early finances derived from forced labor.

A history professor, Joseph Hall, said the students’ work demonstrates “the best kind of education,” with Soler and Rall deciding what to explore and then digging into it.

There’s more research to do that might perhaps clarify just how Bates made his money and where he got the cotton his mills needed. But already, the two students said, it’s time to address how the college should deal with the newfound complexity of its origin.

It is sessions like theirs that make Bates’ annual MLK Day events live up to its mission of rigorous scholarship intended to cultivate intellectual discovery and inform civic action.

The assortment of speeches, workshops, debates, plays, movies and more is why the day “is one of my favorite events of the year,” said another senior, Alexandria Onuoha.

She said it encourages students — and other participants — “to not stay silent” in the face of injustice.

“The work against bias is all of ours,” said Clayton Spencer, Bates’ president since 2012.

Though the college canceled its normal classes, psychology professor Michael Sargent called it “a day on, not a day off” at Bates.

“This is a day when we are on mission,” he said, part of a tradition that stretches back three decades.

Stanford University professor Jennifer Lynn Eberhardt delivers the keynote address, titled Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think and Do, at Bates College’s MLK 2020 event on Monday in Lewiston. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

The MLK Day keynote speaker, Stanford University professor Jennifer Lynn Eberhardt, said six in 10 Americans think race relations are bad and getting worse.

“As a nation, we’re struggling to try to hang on,” Eberhardt said.

Talking about research that she and others have done, Eberhardt showed that racial stereotypes run deep and have dramatic impacts on many lives.

She told a story about a time years ago when her 5-year-old son boarded an airplane with her. The boy looked around and declared that one fellow passenger looked like his father.

Eberhardt said she eyed the man and quickly decided he didn’t look anything like her husband. He had long hair while the boy’s taller father shaved his head, among other things.

Then she realized the guy was the only black man on the flight. While she wondered how to address her son’s comment, the boy added, “I hope that guy doesn’t rob the plane.”

Stunned, Eberhardt asked him why he said that.

“He looked at me with this really sad face,” she said, and announced that he didn’t know.

“Even 5-year-olds are caught in the grip” of a racism so embedded in the culture that nobody escapes it, Eberhardt said.

The scientific research on everything from school suspensions to the death penalty backs up her assertion.

Eberhardt said, though, that despite the bias all around us, “we’re not doomed to be under” its spell forever.

She said that simply taking more time to make decisions, to try harder to use objective rather than subjective standards and showing more empathy can begin to chip away at the problem.

“There’s a lot of power in just the simple things,” Eberhardt said.

Part of the answer, as session after session made clear, is for people to try harder to put themselves in the shoes of others and to remember the hardships that racial divisions have caused since the earliest days of the American colonies.

Cliff Odle, a lecturer in theater whose play “The Petition” takes place in Boston in 1774, said the reality of slavery in New England is “largely forgotten.”

His play brings to life a moment when the black residents of Boston appealed for an end to slavery in one of a few unsuccessful petitions to the Massachusetts council and governor.

In one of the petitions signed by enslaved Bostonians, they asserted that “A Life of Slavery Like that of your petitioners Deprived of Every social privilege of Everything Requisite and render Life Tolerable is far worse than Nonexistence.”

Other sessions delved into Black Lives Matter, the teachings of Mohandas Gandhi, the need for more diverse picture books for children, the quest for environmental justice, bias in Lewiston schools and many more tough issues.

Dealing with them may not require changing the name of the school — just imagine the marketing expense, some said — but many participants said it will take a renewed commitment to the work at hand.

The bottom line, as Onuoha put it, is that “we are still on a journey for civil rights and equal treatment for all.”

Anne Sibley O’Brien, one of the founders of the Diverse Book Finder Project Coordinator, and children’s book author and illustrator, talks to children and adults at a workshop titled “Using K-3 Picture Books to Address Race and Racism with Children” in the Muskie Archives at Bates College on Monday during the Bates College MLK 2020 event. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

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