Dr. Cornel West spoke to the Penn State community Friday evening as part of the Evening Celebration concluding MLK Commemoration Week. West is a well known political activist, author, and an honorary chair of the Democratic Socialists of America.
The line to get into the event was long and diverse, with each person there for a different reason.
“He is a very outspoken person on topics of race, and all the issues happening around the world, particularly the U.S.,” said Ana Carolina Diaz, a social studies instructor at Penn State.
“Cornel West is a very important figure that I look up to. I’ve read many of his books. I like how he is very critical of neoliberalism and our overall political system,” said Jeff Etienne, current president of the Penn State chapter of the NAACP. “I like how he’s very radical. The philosophy and the way he is, he’s not a moderate. He’s all about reconstructing everything.”
A number of openers took the stage before West, entertaining and informing the audience on some of the daunting political and social problems facing America today.
As attendees filed in, a projector at the front displayed clips of citizens being unjustly harmed by the police and activists speaking out on the matter. There was a haunting video of a young child grieving over deaths in the black community, crying, “We need our mothers, we need our fathers.”
The event started with an acknowledgment of the MLK student committee, with two committee members receiving awards and added visibility for their hard work. The School of Theatre’s Dr. Susan Russell gave an eloquent speech on Martin Luther King, Jr., and how he and his movement have impacted our lives and history. Russell would go on to introduce other performers and speakers throughout the night.
Next, President Eric Barron spoke about inclusivity on campus, mentioning the work of the All In initiative and how new positions had been created to increase diversity on campus.
“Each person on this campus has earned their right to be here… The motto is be who you are, together,” Barron said about discrimination on campus.
Carlos Wiley, Director of the Paul Robeson Cultural Center, spoke after President Barron. Wiley’s speech began with a reference to MLK’s “Where Do We Go from Here?” speech. He spoke about underdiscussed topics, like how black people were more than twice as likely as white people to be in poverty. In reference to the recent transition of power in D.C., he challenged the audience to stand up for their brothers and sisters and to not leave them behind.
The event went on as two students from Penn State WORDS performed spoken word pieces about violence and discrimination against minorities, received a standing ovation from the audience. An MFA candidate performed a moving and theatrical piece with profound and insightful lyrics like, “Silence kills, but voices heal.”
Applause rang out as Dr. Cornel West finally took the stage. His low, sweet Southern voice commanded the room, and the audience fell silent to listen to what West had to say. The two significant aims of his speech were to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s work, and to let the audience know that it was their responsibility to stand up against hatred and injustice.
West talked about how MLK was shaped by tradition and community, and how he was able to create love despite being so hated in his time.
Though it wasn’t the main focus of his speech, West did find time to address Donald Trump and many of the problems surrounding his presidency.
“I believe in charitable Southern hatred,” West joked. “Donald Trump is still my brother, the problem is… the injustice… I can’t stand unfairness and injustice.”
Some attendees found significance in West speaking on Inauguration Day.
“It is important. Now, more than ever, we need to realize what this country stands for, and be strong and speak up, and make sure democracy is never very far from our minds,” said State College Mayor Elizabeth Goreham.
He ultimately gave an obligation to the audience — and to anyone who believes in justice and fairness — to continue MLK’s work.
“Everything is at stake,” West said, telling the audience to continue fighting against bigotry and tyranny. “That’s what MLK has always been about.”
Photo Credit: Madison Starr/The Underground