Black Lives Matter activist speaks at St. Paul’s School about MLK Jr.

  • Educator and political organizer Frank Leon Roberts delivered the Martin Luther King Day keynote address at St. Paul's School in Concord on Monday, Jan. 15, 2018. —Alyssa Dandrea

  • Educator and organizer Frank Leon Roberts delivers the Martin Luther King Jr. Day address at St. Paul’s School in Concord on Monday. ALYSSA DANDREAMonitor staff

  • Educator and political organizer Frank Leon Roberts delivered the Martin Luther King Day keynote address at St. Paul's School in Concord on Monday, Jan. 15, 2018. —Alyssa Dandrea

  • St. Paul’s faculty member Ashley Zanca joined colleagues and students at Memorial Hall to hear educator and political organizer Frank Leon Roberts deliver the keynote address on Martin Luther King Day. —Alyssa Dandrea

  • St. Paul’s School student Cyril Amanfo asks a question of Frank Leon Roberts, who delivered the Martin Luther King Jr. Day keynote address at the Concord prep school on Monday, Jan. 15, 2018. ALYSSA DANDREA / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 1/15/2018 8:39:47 PM

Speaking to St. Paul’s School students on the occasion of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Frank Leon Roberts began with “the King who we forgot.”

Roberts, a New York University professor and Black Lives Matter organizer, speaks at events and rallies across the country. He said he’s continually struck by the “sanitized” King that is celebrated.

“We forget that King was an anti-war, anti-capitalist, socialist rebel, really, who was arrested 39 times by the age of 35,” Roberts said.

King, Roberts added, was such a divisive figure during his lifetime that his alma mater, Morehouse College, the all-male historically black university in Atlanta, refused to let him serve on their board because he was considered “a negative influence on black youth.”

Seventy-two percent of Americans disapproved of King at the time of his death, Roberts said. And a similar number disapproved of the larger movement he led.

“They said that the civil rights movement was too disruptive, that they weren’t doing things the right way, that they needed to change their tactics. Sound familiar?” Roberts said, drawing a parallel between King and today’s Black Lives Matter movement – the central theme of his speech.

Roberts, who has written a “Black Lives Matter” syllabus for use in universities, went on to unpack what, exactly, was meant by the movement’s name and leading slogan.

Black lives mattered to slave masters in the 19th century, Roberts said, who understood the importance of free labor to the South’s economy. Black lives similarly matter today, he said, to those who advocate for private prisons.

“The question in our country has never been about whether or not black lives matter. The question has always been about whether black lives are human lives,” Roberts said. “Black Lives Matter is first and foremost a human rights movement.”

BLM activists don’t believe only black lives matter, he said, countering a popular misconception repeated by opponents. They believe the country doesn’t value black lives – that black lives matter, too.

“For the All Lives Matter crowd, I would say that you’re preaching to the choir,” he said, referencing a common right-wing critique of the movement’s message.

Black Lives Matter is also a feminist movement, he said, and a movement that affirms LGBTQ rights. It was founded in 2013 by three black women – Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi – two of whom are members of the LGBT community.

It is also a movement, Roberts said, that rejects “the politics of respectability” – the idea that marginalized groups should adopt the majority’s norms surrounding respectability, instead of demanding that difference be accepted.

Roberts, who wore a baseball cap, a black sweatshirt emblazoned with the name TRAYVON, and a gold chain, pointed out that he wasn’t wearing a speaker’s traditional suit and tie. That was on purpose, he said, and the intent was to challenge what the idea of a college professor should look like.

Black Lives Matter is also both a “remembrance prayer,” he said, and an “affirmation prayer,” attempting to speak a new reality into being.

The country’s history where black rights are concerned has always been cyclical, Roberts said, with progress always followed by backlash. The Civil War led to the adoption of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments. But after the South went through the post-war Reconstruction, the Ku Klux Klan formed, and states enacted Jim Crow laws.

The civil rights era saw the passing of the Voting Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act. But what followed was the realignment of the Republican Party and the War on Drugs.

“We are essentially living in a third Reconstruction,” he said.

When Donald Trump was elected president last year, America told “an ugly truth” about what it valued, Roberts said. (Earlier in his speech, he noted the “profound irony” in celebrating King at a time when Jeff Sessions, who Coretta Scott King had begged the U.S. Senate not to appoint to a federal judgeship, now held the reins at the Justice Department as Attorney General.)

“But I come from a tradition – and Dr. King came from a tradition – that said the truth is always the precondition for transformation,” he said.

But transformation, Roberts said, was necessarily disruptive.

“We need to affirm our moral commitment to being troublemakers,” Roberts said. “Dr. King, he was a problem. Malcolm X – oh he was a problem. Colin Kaepernick? He is a problem for the NFL. You want to talk about it in religious terms? Jesus was a problem.”

And he also cautioned his audience against confusing the symptom for the disease.

“Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against what?” he said, pausing to see if anybody could fill in the biblical verse. “Powers and principalities. The principality of unchecked male privilege. The principality of corporate greed. The principality of anti-immigrant xenophobia. The principality of anti-black racism. Our struggle in this moment is not against Jeff Sessions or the Democratic Party or the Republican Party or Donald Trump.”

Roberts closed on a hopeful note.

“We can do this y’all. Whatever it is. If together we organize, together we mobilize, together we dream – then together, we will win,” he said.

(Lola Duffort can be reached at 369-3321 or
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