Michelle Alexander talks race, criminal justice to cap Northwestern’s MLK celebrations

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Michelle Alexander talks race, criminal justice to cap Northwestern’s MLK celebrations

Michelle Alexander, a law professor and civil rights lawyer, speaks to a packed Pick-Staiger Concert Hall about modern racial inequalities in America. Alexander’s speech, which focused particularly on disparities in the criminal justice system, concluded Northwestern’s annual celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.

Michelle Alexander, a law professor and civil rights lawyer, speaks to a packed Pick-Staiger Concert Hall about modern racial inequalities in America. Alexander’s speech, which focused particularly on disparities in the criminal justice system, concluded Northwestern’s annual celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.

Sean Su/Daily Senior Staffer

Michelle Alexander, a law professor and civil rights lawyer, speaks to a packed Pick-Staiger Concert Hall about modern racial inequalities in America. Alexander’s speech, which focused particularly on disparities in the criminal justice system, concluded Northwestern’s annual celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.

Sean Su/Daily Senior Staffer

Sean Su/Daily Senior Staffer

Michelle Alexander, a law professor and civil rights lawyer, speaks to a packed Pick-Staiger Concert Hall about modern racial inequalities in America. Alexander’s speech, which focused particularly on disparities in the criminal justice system, concluded Northwestern’s annual celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.

Jeanne Kuang, Managing Editor

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Drawing a standing ovation from a packed audience in Pick-Staiger Concert Hall on Monday evening, civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander called on students and the rest of the country to honor Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy by continuing to fight for racial justice.

Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” and a law professor at Ohio State University, delivered the keynote address that concluded NU’s 10-day celebration held in King’s honor. Hundreds of students, faculty and NU community members attended.

In her speech, Alexander condemned the U.S. criminal justice and prison systems’ high rates of incarceration of minorities, particularly black men, criticized some Americans’ notions of a post-racial society and compared many inequalities faced by black citizens to civil rights violations of the past century.

Alexander’s address was preceded by a speech given by SESP senior Sarah Watson, winner of the student oratorical contest held last week in which students gave speeches inspired by a King quote.

Watson, who also received a standing ovation, spoke of her reactions to the recent grand jury decision in Ferguson, Missouri, not to indict the white police officer who fatally shot unarmed black teenager Michael Brown.

“I felt as if the wind had been knocked out of me,” Watson said.

She discussed her experiences with racism on campus and called on the audience to work toward advancing civil rights during this “critical point in time.”

“What we do now, what we tolerate now, will dictate the future,” Watson said.

Alexander’s speech addressed similar topics that Watson mentioned, including racial inequalities in American education, housing and particularly criminal justice.

The lawyer opened her address by stating her “mixed feelings” about the state of racial progress in America and continued by citing numerous statistics relating to race and the criminal justice system.

“Many of the young people who are acting out on our streets today are the children of the men who were taken prisoner in the early days of the drug war, robbed of their futures, robbed of hope and entire communities, neighborhoods, destroyed,” she said.

However, Alexander ended her speech with “good news.” She said protests in response to the events in Ferguson carry on King’s legacy and bring the country closer to his vision of equality.

“People are waking up,” she said. “I think the time comes when truth stares you in the face, daring you to look away and say nothing.”

Alexander called on the crowd to continue King’s work of achieving racial equality through fundamental societal change, although she said many have reduced “his words to mere platitudes.”

“We must never, ever forget that he died a revolutionary,” she said to applause from the crowd.

Lesley-Ann Brown-Henderson, executive director of Campus Inclusion and Community, called the speech a “call to action.”

“It’s overwhelming, I think it was so powerful,” she said after the event. “We can’t keep ignoring what’s happening … I thought it was right on time.”

Brown-Henderson is a member of the NU committee that planned the University’s celebration of King. She praised the committee’s work in this year’s events and said she hopes to see the program expand more in the future.

“The committee is starting to meet earlier,” she said. “That gives more room to plan more, to get speakers earlier and then to think, what other events can we build around the keynote.”

Gospel group Northwestern Community Ensemble performed both before and after the speeches on Monday night.

Email: jkuang@u.northwestern.edu
Twitter: @jeannekuang

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