In celebration of Black History Month, Salt Lake Community College held a commemorative Martin Luther King Jr. keynote presentation that focused on his vision of a “beloved community” — which King described as a society where “caring and compassion drive political policies that support the worldwide elimination of poverty and hunger and all forms of bigotry and violence.”
SLCC livestreamed the event from the Grand Theatre due to the recent surge of the COVID-19 omicron variant, but a small crowd was also allowed to attend in person.
The event began with a statement on behalf of SLCC President Deneece Huftalin, read by Provost for Academic Affairs Clifton Sanders, which voiced SLCC’s stance of solidarity with over a dozen historically Black colleges and universities that received bomb threats on the first day of Black History Month.
Dr. Michele Goodwin — holder of the Chancellor’s Professorship at the University of California, Irvine and has received numerous awards recognizing excellence in teaching, scholarship, and human rights advocacy — provided a historical overview of King’s vision of a beloved community and highlighted why it matters.
“My talk today is about letters, law and love from Dr. King and the beloved community and pays homage to Dr. King, his broader legacy and the pioneering work across and with coalitions,” Goodwin said.
Goodwin said King hoped during the march on Washington in August 1963 — exactly 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect — that equality could finally be realized.
“And yet, in 2022, the concerns that motivated Bayard Rustin and the organizers for the march on Washington percolate today; voter suppression, environmental justice, police violence, economic distress, joblessness, segregated public school, and right now the talking of banning of books written by Rosa Parks and Dr. King,” Goodwin said.
Goodwin also emphasized the important precipice in which we stand in the wake of these times.
“We’re at a time of promise, possibly one more barrier to segregation and integration will fall,” she said, referring to President Biden’s promise to nominate the first Black woman to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court.
“And yet, like you, I cringe at the manner that Black women judges have been described as lesser, less qualified, as unable to discern the differences between a legal case book from a clothing catalog,” Goodwin said. “These are derogatory insults hurled by those who fear truth and understanding.”
Goodwin voiced that equality in education remains an unanswered goal.
“In fact, the modern challenges no longer demand inclusion and desegregation alone — which were the urgent undergirding’s of Brown Board vs. education — but rather, sparing Black children from unequal surveillance, punishment and the school-to-prison pipeline,” she said.
Goodwin noted that as crucial as equality is in voting and education, this alone does not comprise the full vision King had for civil rights in terms of a beloved community.
“A beloved community also included dismantling discrimination in housing, health care, food access, and criminal justice,” Goodwin said. “And it is a shame that there are Americans [today] who starve and children who go to bed hungry at night.”
Goodwin also said that the pandemic has “revealed underlying institutional and infrastructural inequalities in our society.”
“Nearly 900,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 and disproportionately they have been poor, and far too many people of color, and amongst them essential workers; people who are called essential but treated as expendable and fungible.”
Goodwin brought up the telling words of late U.S. Justice William O. Douglas — who served on the Supreme Court during the civil rights movement of the 20th century — when he said, “Cases which have come to this Court depict a spectacle of slavery unwilling to die.”
Douglas further explained the specific instances including contrivances by states designed to thwart Black people from voting, excluding Black people from juries solely on the account of their race, making Black people attend segregated and inferior schools or being denied entrance to college or graduate schools because of their color.
Goodwin, as a law professor and expert, urged the audience to understand how Douglas’ words highlight laws’ complicity with where we stand today.
“Douglas’ words here revealed the stunning insistence in law itself in serving as an obstacle to the vision of a beloved community,” she said. “Law itself, in the subordination of Black Americans, indigenous Americans and others.”
Goodwin quoted from several King speeches throughout, choosing to narrow in on the four critical points of the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which King wrote while incarcerated following a peaceful protest to advance civil rights for Black Americans.
In a post-interview, Goodwin said she believes we do a disservice to ourselves, children, and nation when we simplify King’s philosophy and message in a reductive way in school and society.
“We create in Dr. King a caricature of Dr. King, one that doesn’t recognize the fullness of who he was,” she said. “He was anti-war, he was pro-equality for all poor people, he cared about environmental justice, he cared about reproductive rights, he cared about access to healthcare, he cared about — in his words — not segregating his moral concerns.”
Goodwin shared what the idea of the beloved community means to her.
“Clearly, love and nonviolence come to mind, harmony and unity between people, and a sense of joyfulness, resistance, persistence as being at the heart of battling against segregation and racial injustice,” she said. “I think at the core of the idea of a beloved community is that we can achieve inclusion, belonging, a sense of integrity within our communities by loving fiercely and by loving mightily.”
Goodwin said she hopes that SLCC students were able to learn more about King’s history and vision of a beloved community from the event.
“I hope they came away from this inspired, feeling themselves represented, and I hope that students no matter where they come from — they’re ethnic backgrounds, racial backgrounds, religion, etc. — see themselves as part of a SLCC family,” she said.
Dance and beloved community film
After Goodwin spoke, Natosha Washington, performing arts department chair and dance company director at West High School, performed an original dance titled, “Black Sheep.” The performance was prefaced with an introduction from Washington.
“I am now a Black woman in dance in Utah,” she said. “There have been challenges based on my genetic makeup, assumptions based on the color of skin and letdowns based on my physique.”
Washington said that despite these frustrations, a whole new world opened up to her because of dance, allowing her to be prouder of her identity.
“I can now look at you and say: I am Black, I am a woman. I now consider myself a Georgian Utahn. I am a dancer, I am a homeowner, I am a damn good cook, I am an educator, I am a sister, I am a daughter, I am a friend, I am a choreographer, I am the penguin lady,” Washington said.
Washington continued, “I am many more things, but one thing that will never change about me is that I am Black, and I am beautiful,” she said before beginning her dance.
A recent documentary film was also shown at the event. “The Beloved Community Project” focuses on “Dr. Martin Luther King’s articulation of the Beloved Community in that it is possible to create civil, equitable and harmonious communities through non-violent social change.” Produced by SLCC and Brolly Arts, the film “provides connection to Dr. King’s support of social equity and justice by exploring local voices that share both historic and contemporary viewpoints.”
After the film was shown, Goodwin moderated a panel presentation and Q&A with the people involved with the project. The event in its entirety can be viewed online.