More than 30 minutes before his Claiming Williams keynote address began last Thursday, Shaun King had already attracted a crowd large enough that ushers had to begin turning prospective attendees away from the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance. Minutes later, even those attempting to watch the livestream in Paresky auditorium could not find a seat. It was the most well-attended event of Claiming Williams Day.
His talk, titled “The New Civil Rights Movement,” concentrated on police brutality and political activism, both of which King has focused on throughout his career. King is best known as a widely published journalist, writer for the New York Daily News, commentator, blogger and head of several organizations specifically focusing on combatting racism and police brutality. His published pieces have been shared on Facebook tens of thousands of times and his message has centered on the necessity of the American public to act on institutionalized discrimination based on race, class and mental health.
During his speech, King used graphs, videos and statistics to show the audience that many legal, economic and political systems deliberately work to do their purpose, which is to disenfranchise minority groups. He argued that history has not progressed in a continuous upward trend but rather in dips and peaks, contrary to many people’s belief that the continuous progression in technology has resulted in the continuous progression of humanity. Labeling the present as a dip, with the potential to dip even further down, he urged the crowd to involve themselves in the larger social movements of today.
King argued that almost every innovation in history, specifically American history, has been directly followed by a dip in humanity. After the Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacy groups rose; after the Civil Rights movement, the prison system began jailing a disproportionally large number of racial minorities; and after the first black president left office, Donald Trump won the presidency. As a result, King believes that fighting for social justice today is just as important, if not more important, than it was after the Civil War and during the Civil Rights movement.
King’s popularity was in large part due to his notable social media presence amongst students at the College. “King has been able to spread his messages and image so widely amongst millennials because he manages his presence online so well,” John Vélez ’20 said. “He understands how to reach so many young people because he is one of us.”
“I knew of Shaun King before as I followed his Facebook account,” Shane Beard ’20 said. “After the various killings by police during the summer, I felt I really needed to express how I was feeling about these acts and I found that with King.”
Another aspect that attracts students to King is his earnestness and the critical nature of his writing. “His articles are very critical, especially of politicians on both sides and how they’ve failed communities of color,” Nohely Peraza ’20 said. “He provides a voice on issues that are not covered at all by the media, specifically on the intersectionality between the various social justice efforts.”
One of the most compelling messages in King’s talk was the illustration of American history through the constant alternation of highs followed by dips, with these dips describing periods as the Transatlantic slave trade, Jim Crow laws that followed the success of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments and the movement towards mass incarceration that followed the Civil Rights Movement.
“It’s so important to examine these patterns in history, as this is when the saying ‘Those who do not learn history are condemned to repeat it,’ becomes so real,” Peraza said. “We have a duty to ourselves to learn of our past. We have such high expectations of the present which limits what we believe we are responsible and capable of doing.”
King’s talk had particular resonance with the experiences of students of color at the College. “I think that the problems I face here at Williams are parallel to those of other minority students in other universities in the nation,” Yaznairy Cabrera ’20 said. “For many here, it is the first time they are confronted [with] diversity like this. It should not be that way.”
“For me, this all reminds me why I am an activist, especially here at Williams,” Berline Osirus ’20 said. “The trauma experienced by being a racial minority, a woman, queer, in this country cannot be intellectualized or analyzed in an objective sense … I understand what King did by showing graphs but no number can describe these traumas.”