The Martin Luther King Jr. Day Convocation on Jan. 21 in Weaver Chapel began like most other years. However, during the speech of university president Michael Frandsen, black members of the Wittenberg community and a few white supporters stood up and led an organized walkout.
In an interview later in the day with Concerned Black Students Leaders and professor Sha’Dawn Battle, she said the walkout was, “certainly in response to the demands being denied, in addition the ongoing injustices to which Black students are subjected.”
At the beginning of the event, students from across campus sat in pews waiting for the event to officially commence. The playing of the organ opened the event as faculty and staff as well as the Imani choir made their way to the front of the chapel.
Rachel Tune began a prayer for campus and the world to continue Martin Luther King Jr.’s movement and to remember his work. Frandsen then followed and began speaking on the importance of the day. Around three sentences into his speech, 30 to 40 students stood up and began exiting through the back of the chapel. Frandsen continued on with his speech as the audience watched in silence.
After Frandsen finished welcoming the attendees, the Imani choir sang a couple of songs. Then, Leul Bulcha, ’20, stepped up to introduce the speaker. The speaker for the event was Adam Foss.
Foss is a former assistant district attorney in the Juvenile Division of the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office in Boston. Foss has since become a criminal justice reform advocate who has garnered quite a few awards for his work. Most recently, he earned the 2017 Nelson Mandela Changemaker of the Year award.
Bulcha closed his statements by bring up the perceived overpolicing that is mentioned in the Letter to the Editor. He, as well as members of the Imani choir, walked out of the chapel after he was done speaking.
Foss then addressed the crowd. He then praised the audience members who walked out.
“Dr. King would have been proud,” Foss said.
Foss then asked the audience members to applaud for those who had walked out, and the audience obliged.
Foss delivered a strong speech based around helping students and people who are in the minority.
“It is going to get a little uncomfortable in here today, and that is okay,” Foss noted.
Students listened as Foss let students know of shocking statistics in our criminal justice system, like one third of black men will be in jail at some point in their lives and while 11 percent of the nation is black, 50 percent of the people incarcerated are black. While shocking, Foss noted that these numbers have become a reality in our criminal justice system.
Using the metaphor of giving someone a sword and shield, Foss called for everyone to live their lives by thinking how they can make’s someone’s life better each day.
After the event, CBS leaders and Battle answered questions over email.
Q: Who organized the walkout?
A: The leaders of Concerned Black Students, along with 3 faculty members.
Q: Do you think this day will be remembered on campus like the first walkout?
A: Ideally it will. At the very least, it was disruption to an event that Wittenberg holds to high esteem. But, we also know that there is a precedence of silencing the past so that history can repeat itself. So only time will tell.
Q: How did it feel to take this stand?
A: As a faculty member who did not possess this level of consciousness and awareness regarding my position in society when I was the same age as our students, it was humbling. It was also humbling to do so beside some brave young souls. From our (the students’) perspectives, we were emotional because of everything that we have gone through. We’ve been so angry, and today felt like a moment of release. It felt like history in the making. Anyone a part of the walk-out will forever live that moment of resistance.
Q: What does it mean to you that this walkout occurred on Martin Luther King Jr. Day?
A: A lot of times, MLK is looked at as a pacifist who only wanted to integrate with white society, but he brought the Black community together, which has to first happen before we joining hands with others. And today that happened. We feel as if we lived up to his legacy of using civil disobedience to achieve a greater cause. He was fearless, and so were we.
Q: Do you feel campus and administration will hear Foss’s speech and take action?
A: In my opinion (as faculty), I know that the act of not listening is a strategic ploy in the service of perpetuating structures of inequality. And history has taught me to hope for the best but prepare for the worst. From our perspective (as students), we can only hope this will be the outcome. But even if they don’t, it can’t derail or stop us. We have to keep pushing.