Though offered entirely online and remotely through Zoom sessions, the college’s 2021 Martin Luther King Jr. Day program still delivered its share of insight, criticism, and hope.

Here are a few quotes that capture important messages from the day.

“I’ll never forget the shock I felt when Chris Wallace from Fox News asked, at the first presidential debate, ‘What does re-imagining policing look like?’ It marks an important moment that would have been inconceivable even last year: The rhetoric of Black Lives Matter protesters have made their way into the vocabulary of a Fox News journalist on a national debate stage.”

— Megan Ming Francis

Francis, a scholar at the University of Washington, offered this quote during a session on the value of social science research to racial justice. A political scientist, Francis researches American politics, looking at the intersection of racial violence and the Black freedom movement. 

The shift in the national conversation, along with the rapid change in public opinion during 2020, toward broad support of Black Lives Matter, seems “surreal,” says Francis. “Let’s remember that in 2014, many white Americans thought it acceptable to debate the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter.’” 

“Truth inherently has value. In order to have shared understandings, we have to have some level of devotion to critically interrogate our own history and come to a set of truths that is reasonably representative.”

— Dylan Gyauch-Lewis ’21 of Nashville, Tenn.

Gyauch-Lewis’ quote is from the annual Rev. Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays, Class of 1920, Debate.

Featuring students from Morehouse College and Bates, the informal debate (no winners were declared) saw the students tackle the question of whether the House should “regret the portrayal of the Union in the Civil War as a morally righteous actor.”

No regret was needed, said the Opposition: Regardless of the Union’s righteousness, it’s important to portray the Union in a kind of myth-making way to advance shared ideals and lessons about what it means to be an American. Gyauch-Lewis countered by saying that the pursuit of truth is more important than myth-making.

Supporting the motion were Daniel Edwards of Morehouse and Gyauch-Lewis ’21 of Bates. Samuel Melcher ’21 of New York City and Caleb Strickland of Morehouse College took the Opposition.

“I wasn’t a bit surprised. I truly had hoped that things had changed. And what I learned from the movie was that things haven’t changed that much.”

Pamela Baker ’69, Helen A. Papaioanou Professor Emerita of Biological Sciences

Baker offered this quote after a screening of the 2020 documentary Picture a Scientist, which depicts patterns of sexual harassment and discrimination as experienced by three generations of women scientists: a biologist, a chemist and a geologist.

The post-film discussion was multigenerational, including Baker other senior Bates STEM faculty, plus three guests: a biochemist, cancer biologist, and a graduate student in astrophysics. 

“I do feel more hopeful after I heard the three young women scientists on our panel,” said Baker. “They still face challenges, but now they can talk about it. In the ‘old days’ we knew we’d better just keep our mouths shut because that’s just the way life was.”

Baker reflected on her own experiences, including as a technician in a laboratory at the University of South Carolina Medical School. There she was harassed by her boss at the lab, who invited her to “dinner and dancing and whatever” whenever her husband, David Baker 70, then in the Navy, was deployed. 

“I was supposed to feel grateful,” she assumed, since the man had given her responsibility in her job, but “it was always very uncomfortable.” As she went on to her own doctoral work, the discrimination and slights she faced included having a male colleague repeatedly leave her name left off papers she had co-authored, until she asked. “It was good that he said yes, but a little weird that I had to ask.” 

“Things have changed somewhat. They haven’t changed enough. And just like what we’re seeing with race and white supremacy in this country, there are a lot of things that were underground, that were societal norms that you didn’t do as explicitly, that have been blown open. And you actually see it being much more open now in a lot of places.”

— Bonnie Shulman, Professor Emerita of Mathematics

During the panel, Schulman shared her own painful experiences with sexual harassment, including by a mathematician who preyed on her at a conference when she was young and just starting out in her academic career in mathematics.

“Knowing that there were people being self-critical was satisfying. Honesty gets prospective students engaged.”

— Ryan Fisse ’22 of Los Altos, Calif.

Attending a session that discusses how a predominantly white college like Bates markets the college to prospective students, including BIPOC students, Fisse talked about being attracted to Bates because of its “founded by abolitionists” marketing. 

As a student, he attended a Mount David Summit presentation led by Professor of History Joe Hall and students. There, he learned more about Bates’ early history, including that funding came from money Benjamin Bates made from his mills, which prior to the Civil War used cotton grown by enslaved persons. He said he valued the fact that Bates people were trying to tell a more complex story.

“Making this origin story that’s sort of mythified central to our marketing is disingenuous. It presents our diversity work as done. We know that’s wrong. Prospective students know that’s wrong.”

— Maddie Sirois ’21 of Maplewood, N.J.

In the same session, Sirois, who is an Admission tour guide, says that emphasizing the college’s laudatory origin story in marketing materials has overshadowed, and can hinder, important, ongoing antiracism work at Bates, implying the work is done. 

“The data urges us to rethink the ‘mantra’ that Maine is a white state. Maine is not so white. It is not when it comes to the contribution of communities of color to Maine’s economy and culture. It is certainly not when it comes to COVID-19.”

— Professor Emerita of Politics Leslie Hill

Maine has the largest racial disparity of COVID-19 in the nation: BIPOC people make up around 2 percent of the state’s population, yet have represented almost a quarter of coronavirus cases.

The MLK Day session “Racial Disparity, Structural Violence and COVID-19 in Maine” looked at the resilience, innovation, and resource-pooling that BIPOC communities in Maine are displaying in the difficult battle again the pandemic.

The program was organized by the Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies. 

During a session of her course on gender and sexuality in U.S. politics, Associate Professor of Politics Leslie Hill responds to guest presenter Whitney Parrish of the Maine Women’s Lobby and Maine Women’s Policy Center. (Theophil Syslo/Bates College)
Leslie Hill teaches her course on gender and sexuality in U.S. politics in 2018. (Theophil Syslo/Bates College)

“Brigade, because we’re warriors carrying out a mission of getting direct access and control of resources and bringing them to our community.”

— Crystal Cron, a community health worker and health justice activist

Cron is president of Presente! Maine, an organization that assesses and responds to the needs of immigrant communities, particularly the Latinx community, which represents a majority of the seafood processing and agricultural workforce in Maine.

Her quote refers to the action last spring, as grocery store shelves emptied, of creating a food brigade to serve her community. It began with just rice and beans and grew to a distribution of more than 15,000 pounds of fresh food weekly, and to helping the community grow 25,000 pounds of its own food. 

“It’s empowering and exhausting and infuriating at once,” said Cron. “We’re taking our survival into our own hands. But then, why must we do this when there’s practically endless resources that can be used to make sure our needs are met?”

“I think Bates has a habit of being the first to speak about anti-Blackness when it happens in the nation, but they refuse to address the trauma that they have caused students. And the form of trauma you’re putting us through is anti-Blackness. And the fact that Bates was built off of anti-blackness: Where do you think the money came from? That came from Black pain and Black trauma. And the exploitation of Black bodies. And if Bates doesn’t acknowledge this, and that we’re still exploited, as students of color and athletes, then how can Bates address their anti-Blackness?”

— Sam Jean-Francois ’23 of Everett, Mass.

Jean-Francois spoke during the annual Sankofa event. Typically featuring performance, this year’s session was a 75-minute conversation centered on Blackness in America, particularly in the aftermath of the insurrection. 

Jean-Francois and others spoke to the personal and shared struggles Black students experience at Bates. The distinction between the virtuous origin story so often told, of abolitionists founding the college, and the more recently examined, more authentic one, connecting the money from mill owners like Benjamin Bates directly to the labor of enslaved people, has been part of the broader conversation at Bates in the last year. 

“You see videos of these terrorists saying, ‘You don’t treat us like this. You’re treating me like I’m Black Lives Matter.’ So to be Black, you’re already considered a terrorist. Your whole being is anti-establishment.”

— Areohn Harrison ’20 of Rockville, Md.

Harrison’s quote calls out the Capitol mob’s blatant hypocrisy, representing itself as a band of patriots, and noted the trauma of being Black in a country primed to presume the worst about you.

His quote also spoke to a broad consensus among the Sankofa group: the entitlement of a predominantly white, Trump-supporting mob as it attacked the Capitol, and how disgraceful (but unsurprising) it was to witness the dazed response of outnumbered and unprepared law enforcement. That lackluster response was in sharp contrast to the massive armed and armored forces regularly mustered for peaceful Black Lives Matter protests in 2020.

Black Lives Matter protesters march in Boston on May 31, 2020. (Samuel Mironko ’21)

“Yes, it’s great to celebrate MLK, and yes, the holiday is needed to bring to light the work of Malcolm X, Angela Davis, and so many other folks. But also, we have to focus on the fact that the U.S. only celebrates him now that he no longer has breath in his body.”

— Akira Townes ’17 of Cockeysville, Md.

Townes was describing the frustration of the U.S. historically failing to acknowledge the value of BIPOC folks “until they’re no longer here.”

Townes, a graduate student in public health at the University of Washington, made the observation during a Q&A period in the workshop “Exploring the History and Meaning of MLK Day, ” a session that used a sociological lens to understand the importance of the holiday, the ritual and traditions involved, and controversies or conflicts surrounding the way the day is celebrated. 

Georgia Southern University sociologist Chad Posick joined Bates sociologists Emily Kane, Benjamin Moodie, and Michael Rocque on the panel.

A mural on the wall of row houses in Philadelphia depicts, from left, Malcolm X, Ella Baker, Martin Luther King Jr., and Frederick Douglass. The quote, "We who believe in freedom cannot rest," is from Ella Baker. The mural artist is Parris Stancell. (Tony Fischer [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons)
A mural on the wall of row houses in Philadelphia depicts, from left, Malcolm X, Ella Baker, Martin Luther King Jr., and Frederick Douglass. The quote, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest,” is from Ella Baker. The mural artist is Parris Stancell. (Tony Fischer [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons)

“If we’re going to compare it to a 100-meter race, I don’t know how many meters the movement has really taken us.”

— Jacob Iwowo ’23 of London

A panelist for a program led by students in the course “#BlackLivesMatter,” taught by Visiting Assistant Professor of Africana Cassandra Shepard, Iwowo responded to a question from Bates President Clayton Spencer.

She asked, “What do you think of as the distinctive power of the way the Black Lives Matter movement is organized, perhaps as compared with the earlier era of the civil rights movement, and are you optimistic that this is a moment of breakthrough?”

Iwowo, who had shared information on economic inequality as the underlying driver of the Black Lives Matter movement, said while he didn’t want to be “Afro-pessimistic,” he questions the relative significance of the current movement within the historical context of centuries of oppression.

“Not to say that the work that has been done hasn’t been amazing, and that it isn’t great to see the support, but, our presentations today are specifically about the systematic issues that are at play. And some of those systematic yardsticks need to be moved in order to call Black Lives Matter a breakthrough, in my mind.”

Another panelist, Mohamed Diawara ’23 of Philadelphia, who had led a discussion on racial justice and the criminal justice system, jumped in first by focusing on the differences between the two movements, beginning with the concrete example of technology.

Media coverage of protests and violence against protesters was extensive in the 1960s, but “a lot of stuff had to go through newspapers, radio, or word of mouth,” he said. “Maybe it took longer to get around, or the severity of maybe wasn’t perceived how it should have been perceived at the time.”

Today, “someone can record what happens and you see it instantly.”

“What Black Lives Matter also provides that I think is maybe a little bit different is more gendered justice…. and making a visible space for LGBTQ folk to be able to be more at the forefront of the movement.”

“I would deem that the Black Lives Matter movement is an awakening for a lot of young people. It’s a call to action for young and old; it seems to be bridging generations.”

— Visiting Assistant Professor of Africana Cassandra Shepard

Shepard offered a third answer to Spencer’s question, delving into another dimension of difference between the two movements, including “maybe a little bit different is more gendered justice…. and making a visible space for LGBTQ folk to be able to be more at the forefront of the movement.”

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