UC Santa Barbara community members came together last Friday ahead of Martin Luther King Jr. Day to remember his life and activism, beginning with a walk at UCSB’s Eternal Flame and focused around the theme “Remembering the Silence of Our Friends.”
Speakers, including UCSB students and community organizers, gave speeches on their personal experiences with racism, institutionalized oppression in higher education and the importance of allyship. The procession of approximately 100 then walked to North Hall, stopping at the mural that honors the students who protested there for Black rights in 1968, before ending at the MultiCultural Center (MCC) for lunch.
The event was hosted by the Martin Luther King Jr. Committee of Santa Barbara, UCSB’s Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) and the MCC.
Chris Hudley, vice president of the Martin Luther King Jr. Committee, elaborated on the importance of the theme “Remembering The Silence of Our Friends,” which comes from the famous King quote: “We remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
“During political years, we have forgotten to have conversations,” Hudley explained. “We want the idea of people having conversations, learning and collaborating, to build inclusiveness and equality.”
Inclusion of friends in conversation was emphasized throughout the event; participants were asked to talk to strangers during the walk about the change they wish to see in the world.
Alyssa Frick-Jenkins, president of UCSB’s Black Student Union, discussed the Eternal Flame monument, where the walk begins. The Flame was donated as a gift by the UCSB Class of 1968 to commemorate peace and unity.
“To me, the Eternal Flame … commemorates the ongoing legacy of MLK because he lit a similar flame under Black students to take under North Hall and demand equality. I find it important for Black students and those who understand their struggle to not only see the monument as one to MLK’s legacy but also one about taking up space in this institution,” Frick-Jenkins said.
Frick-Jenkins’ ideas of “self determination, Black freedom and liberation,” which were recurring themes throughout the event, led to a discussion of empowerment in institutions of higher education like UCSB.
“Take up space here,” Frick-Jenkins told attendees. “We can see ourselves within this institution that was not inherently made for the education of Black people.”
Deandre Miles-Hercules, president of the Black Graduate Students Association, touched on their personal experiences as a Black, gender nonconforming individual and, similarly to Frick-Jenkins, their struggle with taking up space in academia.
“This is important for me personally, because I am Black and gender nonconforming and as a scholar that is not often a comfortable place to be, and in the world that it is often dangerous and harmful to be in,” Miles-Hercules said.
“MLK said direct action is presenting our very bodies to the conscience of the public of our national and local communities,” they explained. “My presence and showing up authentically is direct action. That too is walking in Dr. King’s legacy.”
While talking to the crowd, Miles-Hercules also emphasized how their presence at UCSB is statistically unlikely. In the 2017-18 academic year, only 3% of graduate students were Black, whereas 5.8% of California residents were Black, a nearly 3% difference between state and university demographics.
UC Regent Elect and UCSB graduate student Jamaal Muwwakkil, another speaker, reiterated this point.
“I’m not supposed to be here. I’m a poor kid from Compton, California. The statistics are against me … I was not supposed to gain access to the UC. The paradigm for Black students is that diversity lowers standards, that the more Black students you have, the lower the ranking of your school,” he said.
Anne H. Charity-Hudley, the North Hall Endowed Chair in the Linguistics of African America and linguistics professor, encouraged attendees to discuss with others what made them come out to the event on their walk to North Hall.
Miriam Bankons, a participant who has been coming to the event for five years, was eager to share her answer to Charity-Hudley’s question.
“I’m here in memory of all the people that came before me and walking for them,” she said. “Talking to other people that we don’t know, that we don’t see, is a way to honor King. His holiday is about a day of service, and I believe this is a way of service.”
When the march reached North Hall, Charity-Hudley recounted the racism she has experienced while achieving success in academia, including being targeted by police and having drawings of lynchings painted on her wall after receiving a raise.
“In many positions, people are happy to see Black people on campus until they receive raises, labs and support. There’s a level of tension when we don’t stay in our place … I want you to think about how we can continue to rise until you make somebody else nervous with your level of success.”
Participants then walked to the MCC to enjoy lunch, celebrate successes made in the name of Black empowerment and listen to MLK’s most famous speeches.
Many attendees discussed how Miles-Hercules’s words resonated with them, especially their ending comments.
“Be a brother, a sister, be a partner in crime to equity and justice, and show up when things are hard and let go of some of that privilege that you might bear in the service of equity and justice,” Miles-Hercules said.
“That is how we walk in Dr. King’s footsteps and honor his memory.”