MTSU history professor Aaron Treadwell channeled his extensive scholarship and considerable oratory skills to give a rousing tribute Monday evening to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — while challenging those attending the university’s traditional MLK celebration to insert themselves into uncomfortable spaces like the slain civil rights leader and his wife did to effect change.
MTSU’s Office of Intercultural and Diversity Affairs hosted its traditional MLK Celebration and Candlelight Vigil in the Student Union Ballroom Monday evening to honor the late Nobel Peace Prize recipient and his wife, Coretta Scott King, for their tireless efforts to make equality and justice for all a reality in a nation that continues to wrestle with racial inequality.
In addition to being an assistant professor in the Department of History, Treadwell is also a pastor like King while also being an Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity brother with civil right icon.
Treadwell’s remarks put a twist on the popular saying of “go where you’re celebrated, not where you’re tolerated,” arguing that when we do only this that we are “robbing ourselves” of “blessings and opportunities” for personal growth and societal change.
And then, putting an added twist to the ongoing pandemic, Treadwell asked the audience to “put your mask on.” But Treadwell’s request was figurative, explaining that the masks needed in the context of securing civil rights and equality are to protect from the “dust and debris” of systemic racism and inequality that forms when those obstacles are challenged, or dusted — from the practice of redlining in housing to the denial of G.I. Bill benefits to Black soldiers returning home from World War II to the removal of Confederate iconography from public spaces.
“The reality is … this dust that I’m metaphorically talking about can kill you,” he said. “These particles can harm you, from the explicit to the implicit. They can mess with your psychological well-being. They can impede you from seeing yourself as the ‘Imago Dei’ or ‘made in the image of God.’ At the end of it all, I want us to understand that dusting your fans causes ‘consequences and repercussions,’” a verbal riff from a line in the movie “Life” starring Eddie Murphy.
“But sometimes, you’ve just got to put a mask on. Stop waiting until things get better. … Sometimes you’ve just got to go in this dusty situation and put a mask on,” he concluded. “If you only go where you’re celebrated, it will allow some of the dust that’s in the air right now to reconnect to its original place.”
‘Work to do for us all’
Also sharing remarks were community members of the Omicron Sigma Lambda chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity Eric Murry, Chuncey Vinson and Montrell Dobbins, with Vinson and Dobbins also being MTSU alumni and student fraternity members when they attended.
Dobbins (Class of ’98), who was president of MTSU’s fraternity chapter as a student and also a charter member of Collegiate 100 student organization, said King’s legacy “inspired a lot of us (students) in our chapter in the way we represented here as students at Middle Tennessee State, about embodying change, embodying community and embodying connection with our student population.”
Vinson (Class of ’12) called King “a change champion, a radical realist who operated with patience and perseverance. … An outspoken observer, a brave brother who spoke with articulated accuracy. A selfless servant, a helpful human. … There is work to do for all of us to become helpful humans.”
Murry challenged the audience to help achieve King’s dream “by mentoring, or grabbing someone within our community, on this campus … to help them achieve their dream of earning a college degree.”
‘Path for us to follow’
Danielle Rochelle, director of Intercultural and Diversity Affairs, served as master of ceremony and welcomed the diverse crowd of attendees “with open arms,” applauding the diversity evidence among the crowd.
Monday’s event also included a recitation of the True Blue Pledge, led by student Michai Mosby, chief of staff of the MTSU Student Government Association, video tributes to both King and his wife featuring historical video footage and photographs chronicling their efforts over the years; and remarks by Paige Jackson, president of the MTSU NAACP chapter.
Jackson discussed the animated children’s educational movie “Our Friend Martin” that she remembered watching in elementary school to teach children about King and the civil rights movement. The film follows two middle school friends as they visit King at different points in his life.
“I’m mentioning this show to show Black resilience. Dr. King and Mrs. Coretta King fought to their last day and Mrs. King has always by his side,” Jackson said. “… They were both born knowing they were going to make a difference, and they did. They both knew that it was time to spring into action. … They made the path for us to follow.”
To close the program, attendees formed a circle inside the ballroom holding blue-lit LED candles as Rochelle read the poem “Equality” by the late Maya Angelou.
But before reading the poem, Rochelle reminded attendees that despite the usually black and while photos and video of King that are frequently shown each year around the holiday, his life wasn’t lived that long ago — a viral social media posts illustrating this by highlighting the fact that King and Holocaust victim and diarist Anne Frank were born the same year as legendary TV journalist Barbara Walters, who died Dec. 30 at age 92.
— Jimmy Hart (Jimmy.Hart@mtsu.edu)