Though more than half a century has passed since the birth of the civil rights movement, Beverly Tatum, president emerita of Spelman College, believes the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and the fight for equality has much to teach us today.

“Words matter. Leadership matters. Organization matters. Those who threaten the status quo will become targets for those who don’t want change. Courage is necessary. Persistence pays off,” she said in an email.

Tatum, author of “Assimilation Blues: Black Families in White Communities: Who Succeeds and Why?” and ”Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race,” came to Ball State’s Pruis Hall for a conversation about the way race relations and civil rights have changed in America.

The conversation, moderated by Bobby Steele, director of the Multicultural Center, and Marsha McGriff, associate vice president for inclusive excellence, focused in part on the very question her book asks — Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?

According to Tatum, the reason why this metaphorical and actual phenomenon continues to happen is due to the way people internalize racial cues from childhood onward. 

She used the example of a black child growing up and internalizing the question of how he is perceived by others, as all children eventually do, but from the viewpoint of a person with pre-existing stereotypes leveled against them.

“When he's 14, he's 6 feet tall and now people are walking across the street to avoid him,” Tatum said. “Not because he's not good looking, but because they are perceiving him as potentially dangerous. And that response is not unnoticed by him.”

That psychological response is part of one of several factors to which Tatum attributed many of the modern civil rights struggles: “Four P’s” — population, politics, polarization and psychology — and used the four most recent U.S. presidencies as an example. 

Despite former President Bill Clinton’s assurance in 1997 that it was the best time to address the racial tensions in the country, she said the next two decades would prove too tumultuous to make progress.

The events of the 9/11 terrorist attacks threw the country into a state of war, which pushed off the discussion, and the 2008 housing collapse caused further economic inequality that disproportionately affected African Americans, she said.

Eventually, Tatum said, the election of the country’s first African-American president would also set back the country from having a discussion on race.

“Immediately after this election, we heard commentators on the news talking about whether or not we were now in a post-racial society, and so we don't have to talk about it because we're post racial, right?” Tatum said. “Now, of course we know that a lot of things happened following President Obama's election that reminded us we were not post racial.”

That reminder, she said, is an example of the pushback to racial equality that has been seen over the last several years, referring to King’s 1967 book “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?”

According to King’s book, Tatum said, every time social progress is made, there is a pushback against that progress, and, following that pushback, a subsequent reversal.

“First, the line of progress is never straight,” King says in the book. “For a period a movement may follow a straight line and then it encounters obstacles and the path bends. It is like curving around a mountain when you are approaching a city. Often if feels as though you were moving backwards, and you lose sight of your goal: but in fact you are moving ahead, and soon you will see the city again, closer by.”

That feeling of King’s vision of a post-racial America was shared by Angela Jackson-Brown, assistant teaching professor of English and community engagement liaison for the Black Faculty and Staff Association.

Jackson-Brown said in an email that pushback against racial equality has been reflected in the political landscape of the United States over the course of the last few election cycles.

“Had you asked me that question [of how race relations have changed] in November of 2008, I would have said we have entered to the King Dream years. Now, I wonder if we have made any strides at all,” she said.

Additionally, the larger public perception of King and the movement he championed were areas both Tatum and Jackson-Brown said are often a simplified version of what King and the civil rights movement stood for.

They said King should be remembered for more than the fight for racial equality, citing his interest in ending economic inequality and improving education.

“In my observation, the average person does not know much about Dr. King,” Tatum said in her email. “Most people know that he was a civil rights leader who believed in non-violence, that he gave a famous ‘I have a dream’ speech at the March on Washington, and that he was assassinated. That’s about it.”

Similarly, Jackson-Brown said King’s modern perception should be more in line with his strengths as an organizer and planner than the purely ideological figure he is known for being.

“Many of the modern day activists do not have a plan beyond the hashtag or the march,” she said. “King did more than gather up his friends to take a walk with him. He made sure that if people were going to put their lives on the line, that there was a purpose behind it.”

Former President Barack Obama, in a conversation at the Obama Foundation Summit in October 2019, also reflected on this issue, saying there is a sense sometimes that the way to make change is to be as judgemental as possible about other people.

“That’s not activism. That’s not bringing about change,” Obama said. “If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not gonna get that far. That’s easy to do.”

However, Tatum said she feels that every person has the ability to affect change if they take the initiative to do so.

“I sort of felt that was beyond my charge as a professor to say you must become an activist, but we all have a sphere of influence,” she said. “If you recognize that you have the power to influence others, how are you using it?”

Contact John Lynch with comments at jplynch@bsu.edu or on Twitter @WritesLynch.