MLK Keynote Speaker Mayor Ras Baraka reminds students: “you have a responsibility to fight for humanity”


Dora Kreitzer, Print Managing Editor

In the keynote speech of Bucknell’s annual Martin Luther King week themed “Legacies: Leaving a Path to Follow,” Newark Mayor Ras Baraka encouraged students to leave a legacy of good, to imagine and build something better than society today, and to be remembered on the right side of history. 

Baraka is the 40th Mayor for the city of Newark, N.J. His family has lived in Newark for over 80 years; his parents Amiri and Amina Baraka were influential artists and community organizers. Baraka has spent his life following their legacy while creating his own. 

To start, Baraka dedicated his talk to Viola Liuzzo, an Italian American woman and civil rights activist who traveled from her home in Detroit, Michigan to Selma, Alabama to join a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

While shuttling marchers back and forth from the Montgomery Airport, she was shot and killed by a car full of Klu Klux Klan members. Baraka dedicated his speech to her because most people do not know who she is, but she created a legacy that should be recognized and celebrated.  

Baraka warned that King’s legacy is more pertinent to us now than any time since King’s assassination. Describing our country as “witnessing a growing atmosphere of hatred and violence,” Baraka cited examples of books being banned, voting rights being challenged, the division of democracy as states rights grow, Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders writing executive orders to prohibit teaching critical race theory, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis banning AP African American Studies in public schools and the election of Donald Trump in 2016. 

More localized, Baraka stated that Newark is the fourth most segregated school district in the country: more than half of Black and brown students go to schools that are 90 percent Black and brown. In the state of New Jersey, as Baraka mentioned, white families’ median wealth is over $320,000 and Black families’ is $17,700.

This drew Baraka into his work as Mayor. He stated that he is beyond angry with the history of violence towards Black bodies and communities that persists today and is instead working daily to address a system “fit for inequality.” 

Given the current context, Baraka said, “we don’t celebrate King as just an icon of the past, but more as a North Star to direct us for what it is that we need to be doing now.” 

Baraka praised King for his protest in radical love. Despite all of the hardships and inequalities, he had faith in God and thus believed that one day, the symbolic David will slay Goliath, and justice will be served. Here, Baraka was sure to note that the notion of justice that we are taught to associate with MLK is an underestimation.

Far beyond everyone being treated by their character rather than the color of their skin, King favored guaranteed income for all, decent affordable housing, fair wages, reparations for centuries of economic exploitation and ultimately, as Baraka put it, not focusing “on the words without focusing on the works.” 

“King tried to develop an offensive strategy that we miss completely,” said Baraka. “He didn’t go to D.C. just to tell people to love him or just to be recognized as a human being. He went there to make the words written on the Constitution real, to seek repair for millions of our ancestors whose bones rest at the bottom of the Atlantic, whose blood stains the fabric of this democracy.”

In doing so, Baraka called his audience to begin to create their own legacy: either a legacy of a struggle for progress and justice or a legacy of selfishness, greed and inequity. 

Baraka sang two versions of the song “Which side are you on?” One was from a coal miner’s fight for union wages in Harlan County, Kentucky in the 1930s, and the other was from Mississippi in the fight for desegregation during the 1960s.

Both songs share the same message—people must pick a side: either that of the union men and the freedom fighters or of the sheriff and the governor, who are repressing the progress of justice. Baraka stated that despite the separation of time, “it’s really the same fight. It’s really the same struggle.” 

“You have to choose sides, and history will record you on one side or the other,” Baraka said. “It’s not enough to be woke… you actually have to be informed. You have to be informed, and you have to use that information to build what you want to see.”

This is a legacy that Baraka believes Dr. King established through his work. Baraka accredited King with a radical imagination, which he used not only to see a better place but to go out and build it. So when celebrating King’s legacy, Baraka reminded students that we cannot simply talk about how bad things are or how far we have progressed; the conversation must continue to how far we have to go. 

“We have to be in the tradition of people who actually fought for democracy, who believed in humanity, who struggled to make the world a better place,” said Baraka. “We have to be in that tradition, no matter what we decide to do.”

In closing his speech, Baraka called on college students to be the change. He is optimistic; Baraka believes—he has to believe—that the hundreds and thousands of students in college right now are using their educations and degrees to create positive change in the trajectory of out. 

“I have to believe, I have to pray that every day you guys are going to resist,” stated Baraka. “That you’re going to be in the legacy of Martin Luther King and not the legacy of slavers… that you are going to march like Viola Luizzo did. That you’re going to go all the way down to Selma. And Selma, to some of us, is not that far.”

Baraka’s keynote speech was one of many events organized as a part of MLK Week, which took place from Jan. 16-27.

The final event of this 11 day commemoration is a screening of “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” at the Campus Theatre on Friday the 27 at 8 p.m. 

(Visited 249 times, 1 visits today)