Dr. Michael Eric Dyson keynotes MLK Day at Vanderbilt

After dinner, l-r: Dr. Allen Cason, Frankie Henry, Gloria McKissack, Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, Rene’ Timmons Whittaker and King Hollands. (photo: Gloria McKissack)

Dr. Michael Eric Dyson gave a stirring Keynote Address for the Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemorative Series at Vanderbilt University on Monday, January 15. The series was established in 1985 at Vanderbilt as a celebration of the life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. commemorating Rev. Dr. King’s life and legacy. This year’s theme is “Justice Through Collective Action: Fighting Oppression without Suppression” and there are more events to come throughout the month. Dr. Dyson, presently University Professor of Sociology at Georgetown University, is one of the nation’s most influential and renowned public intellectuals.

“Every year as we gather across the nation to celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. there are inspiring speeches given with the intention of helping move the needle of realizing The Dream,” said Rev. Harold M. Love, Jr., PhD, Tennessee General Assembly State Representative District 58, on Tuesday. “I can say without hesitation that listening to Dr Michael Eric Dyson last night refocused my efforts to remove barriers of advancement for people of color in Nashville. It was important for students and community to hear the critical assessment of how we got to where we are as a nation. Dr Dyson reminded us that where we are now didn’t happen over night and to depart from here will take time.”

Dyson took the audience through a delightful and enthralling hour of inspiration and exploration of the true legacy of Dr. King juxtaposed with the current and past political and social realities. He did so with his extraordinary intellect and charisma in a humorous but truthful manner.

“Mr. Dyson has the type of presence and experience that speaks to the college freshman born in the mid-90s and to the freedom fighters who sat-in during the civil rights movement,” said Leah Pleshette, Legislative Liaison at State of Tennessee and Adjunct Professor at Tennessee State University. “He kept the attention of people from different social, ethnic, culturally, and generational backgrounds. His speech was captivating, honest, and neccessary for today’s political culture.”

Prior to the address a dinner was held in the Board of Trust Room of the Student Life Center, where Dr. Dyson sat with a group of select Vanderbilt student leaders. Next to that table were a group of Nashville Civil Rights Movement heroes and sheroes, some Freedom Riders and some Veterans of the Sit-Ins in the 1960’s, including Freedom Rider Dr. Allen Cason, Sit-in demonstrators Frankie Henry, Gloria Mckissack, and King Holland and guest Rene’ Timmons Whittaker. That table was a lively and diverse group with stories to tell, as several had earlier in the day to some of the students in various panels and discussion groups. It was a pleasure to sit with them, along with my sister who had been invited in honor of her background in the struggle to advance African Americans. She was the first student admitted to, and graduated from, the then Peabody Demonstration School, now the University School of Nashville.

“We must pick up the torch of Dr. King’s struggle to eliminate racism and poverty in America,” said Justin Jones, who is a strong young social justice leader today. “This nation would be a very different place without his vision, without Dr. Kimbrough, Dr. Strong, Diane Nash, Bernard Lafayette, John Lewis, Kwame Leo Lillard, and so many others in their freedom generation. Yet there is still work to be done. If they fought then, we must fight now!”

Dwayne Vincent Elliott, Director, Arts & Campus Events (ACE) at Vanderbilt University was excited about the address. “Best MLK Speaker in my 13-years at Vandy! Bravo Dr. Michael Eric Dyson.”

Following the speech a book signing was held for his most recent book, Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America.

“A fiery sermon, and an unabashedly emotional, personal appeal,” said John Toomey, one of hundreds in a long line to get a book signed and maybe a selfie with the author. “Dr. Dyson’s lecture at Vanderbilt last night was amazing, he calls upon us to be more awake, more honest, more loving, more active.”

Among the many thing Dyson touched upon, “fighting oppression without suppression, we live in the United States of amnesia, justice through collective action, the fierce urgency of now, as far as what stood out, I’d say the fact that he touched on all the social issues that are happening today, right now,” said PRIDE contributing writer and proud Fisk University alumnus Kossie Gardner III. “He wasn’t preaching or trying to place blame. Just highlighting the issues and showing how they’re all connected.”