Students Moved By Hearing Belafonte Speak on MLK Day

“To me, it was just powerful to hear someone speak who was directly involved with so many historical events and historical figures.”

That’s how Ryan McBride, ’10, MA’13, summed up the experience of hearing musician and social activist Harry Belafonte speak at Hill Auditorium on Monday. Students and alumni alike were impressed by Belafonte’s poise as he told stories about the civil rights era and the time after.

“Getting to hear someone like Mr. Belafonte speak on the MLK holiday makes me really appreciate how someone who felt such oppression in their bones were able to accomplish what they did with such dignity,” said Curt Nickisch, a U-M Knight Wallace journalism fellow.

Belafonte shared about his personal relationship with MLK and what the nation has lost in the time since King died. Throughout his presentation, he spoke with great candor.

“I like how he resisted the idea of idealizing the civil rights movement and the people who were part of it,” remarked Alex Viard, ’08, a grad student in the Ford School. “There is always a difference between where you are and where you want to be, and there’s always something ugly about that. It can beautiful, too, but that’s not all. I appreciated his command of that complexity of the human experience.”

“I always like talking with people older than me, because they have knowledge I can’t have because of how much longer they’ve lived,” Viard continued.

U-M President Mary Sue Coleman spoke at the beginning of the keynote event about how the #BBUM discussion on Twitter last semester revealed issues the University needs to address based on the negative experiences expressed by African American students.

“As president, it pains me to hear this, and it is very sobering,” she said. “We must do more and do more now.”

The comments follow an announcement last week by U-M Provost Martha Pollack that U-M is taking steps to make changes in the wake of #BBUM. A group of students protested on the steps of Hill immediately after Belafonte’s talk ended. Students in the lobby after the event had mixed feelings about whether leaders can deliver on their promises of change.

“I’m cautiously optimistic. I appreciate the sentiment, but I’ll believe it when I see it,” said Beka Guluma, a U-M senior.

“I can say I feel like I’ve been a beneficiary of the efforts by the University, especially in grad school, because I’ve appreciated the value of a diverse cohort,” Alex Viard said. “So on a personal level, I say bravo. I’m sure there’s still probably work to do. I don’t feel informed enough about University policy overall to say how the University is doing beyond that.”

Belafonte’s talk was one of many events offered during the day of the MLK Symposium. Below is an Instagram video of the Michigan Community Scholars Circle of Unity, an event on the Diag at 2 p.m. David Schoem, director of the Michigan Community Scholars Program, said the idea for the event came from a student about 10 years ago, and it has been taking place ever since. “It’s one way to celebrate King’s vision, in the spirit of coming together,” he said. 

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