MLK's True Legacy: An Interview with Student Organizer Taylor Morgan

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can't agree with your methods of direct action.’” - MLK, Letter from a Birmingham Jail, 1963

On January 24th, 2019, Taylor Morgan ‘19 posted on her Facebook page the following message:

FYI: at the MLK collection tomorrow at 12:30PM-1:30PM in the friend's meeting house, a few students and staff (including me) have been instructed to read whitewashed quotes about dr. king's legacy under the guise of "diversity and inclusion." i cannot, in good faith, participate. i'm going to be reading a quote from an alternative, more historically accurate list and would love if a few more people joined me!! message me for more information!

Ultimately, she and four other students went to the collection with new quotes that they felt much more accurately portrayed Dr. King’s beliefs and his legacy. However, before Morgan was able to read her quote, the collection was cut short. Voices sat down to talk with Morgan about what happened, the importance of correctly remembering Dr. King, and what we can do to faithfully carry out his legacy.

The below interview has been edited for clarity.

Voices: Do you want to go ahead and tell your story of what happened at the Collection?

Taylor Morgan: Sure. For context, I do want to preface by saying that the administrators that I will mention, specifically Joyce Tompkins [Director of Religious and Spiritual Life] and Dean Lewis [Assistant Dean/Junior Class, Director of the Black Cultural Center] are committed to their work and want the best for their students and people in general. What I’m seeing a problem with is the larger system that, in order to be a faculty member, staff, or student at Swarthmore, we have to participate in and change.

At the MLK Day of Service, I was asked to read an MLK quote at the MLK Day Collection the coming Friday. I had gone to the [MLK] collection and read a quote my freshman year and I remember what it was like, but I now have a much different perspective about why it’s important to remember and honor Black radical figures, and why symbolic gestures, especially regarding race, racism, and the legacy of a man who was killed for the things that he said and did, are important. So, I was a bit hesitant, but I agreed.

About a day later, I received the list of quotes that Joyce Tompkins selected for me, two other students, Thomas Stanton ‘19 and Abby Diebold ‘20, and two faculty members, Simone Hayes [Administrative Assistant to the BCC] and Nakia Waters [Program Coordinator First in Family and Black Cultural Center] to read. In reading them, I wasn’t surprised, but I was really disappointed that the quotes threaded a common narrative that whitewashes the history of civil rights organizing by making it seem like MLK was only committed to the principles of love, peace and nonviolence, as if those can exist without justice. In reality, that’s only a fraction of what was revolutionary about MLK’s contributions to a larger Black radical tradition of thought and action. But, from my view, a lot of people, particularly white liberals on Swarthmore’s campus and elsewhere, intentionally choose that piece of his history to paint its entirety as nonviolent and to often undermine the efforts of Black radical and Black leftist individuals and organizations today.

So I was frustrated. To me, I had three options: One was to email back and say “I don’t want to participate.” The second was to respond by presenting a list of quotes that I felt were more important and also providing context as to why the ones sent were not appropriate. But the third that came to mind was, thinking about Dr. King’s legacy of direct action and his believing that the only way to undermine power was to speak truth to it and act in the face of it, to create a scene and pushing people to think. So, with the insight of other students, I decided direct action was more appropriate.

The day of the collection, me, Abby Diebold ‘20, Gabe Evans ‘19, Killian McGinnis ‘19, and Annie Slappy ‘20 all had quotes we were prepared to read during the collection. As it turned out, only Abby, Gabe, and Annie got to read their quotes. Annie actually spoke [at the collection] about the legacy of a Black lesbian pastor as an example of a radical figure in history that is often erased and overshadowed by MLK’s legacy because his is more acceptable to people-- that was really moving. But the ceremony ended early. I didn’t get to read a quote, and Killian didn’t get to read their quote. [Apparently the collection] was cut early because its organizers wanted people to enjoy the reception afterward before leaving, but part of me felt like -- I don’t know if they agreed previously to cut it early-- but it felt like they just didn’t want to embrace the discomfort. People were shifting in their seats and the air became tense. You could tell people weren’t expecting to hear that and also didn’t come there to hear that side of MLK’s legacy. At the end, I was disappointed that I didn’t get to read, but glad in the spirit of direct action, in the spirit of resistance, we were able to push back against the whitewashing that happened. Overall, it was a really compelling display of students recognizing a narrative as wrong and violent and doing something about it.

Voices: You mentioned your freshman year that the audience was generally white and not the same people that you see doing the Black radical activism that you wanted to present. Was that similar this time around too?

TM: Yes, definitely. There were a few members of the Friends Meeting House that had come for the MLK collection my freshman year, and also faculty members with less of a reputation for anti-racist activism. Maurice Eldridge [Vice Chair for the Chester for Education and the Arts] also spoke. He talked about what MLK’s legacy was from his perspective and his own experience learning about organizing in the context of the Civil Rights movement, and emphasized the importance of what we do the rest of the days of the year for service and justice. Maurice’s speech was powerful, but I was surprised that he didn’t name more concrete things.

Voices: How did you choose the quotes that you wanted to read? I’m sure there are a lot, but was there a certain direction you wanted to take that in this specific context as well?

TM: I’m a big Twitter person. Twitter is one of my my biggest sources of news, of critique, and of other marginalized voices speaking for themselves, talking about their own experiences, and relating them to current events or policy. In the days following the collection I had been reading a lot of critiques from Black and Indigenous scholars about MLK’s history and one author in particular stuck out to me. @IWriteAllDay_, aka Clarkisha Kent, is a columnist at The Root, Huffington Post, and Essence. On MLK Day, she posted a viral thread that essentially spoke to the fact that MLK was a radical figure, and that white American society in particular is known for using his legacy against Black people by pretending that he was the epitome of a respectful and “peaceful” protestor. In reality, he called out capitalism, imperialism and whiteness explicitly and was assassinated for it. In the thread below, she included a list of ‘all the tweets your public school textbooks and your white friends won’t tell you about.’ I basically researched, copied, and pasted all the quotes included in her tweets and put them into a Google document. Most importantly, she mentioned that she only hand-picked 14 quotes, but that there were countless others. You can really juxtapose those with the quotes I was sent to read at the MLK Collection, which were all about “violence being a descending spiral” and only love-trumping-out-the-darkness-and-the-hate.

I think the tend to favor nonviolence largely comes from a desire to seek solutions without hurting people. But we have to acknowledge that people are hurt every day by white supremacy, like when Black people are killed in their backyards by police or when Black mothers die in childbirth at 3-4x the rate of white women due to implicit bias among mostly white medical professionals. And when ICE agents intentionally destroy gallons of water left for people in desperate situations -- that are, by the way, largely created by the history and legacy of U.S. imperialism -- crossing the desert, and the government continues frame migration as a national security issue. When we focus on “hate” in the U.S. and think about hate as something perpetuated only through physical violence or the overt racism of, say, Donald Trump, it can allow us to ignore the ways in which all white people are complicit in white supremacy and benefit from it. These are just some of the concrete details that are so often intentionally kept out that we were able to push back against, at least in part, by reading quotes from her thread at the Collection.

Voices: Was there anything new that you learned from the thread that you want to share with our readers?

TM: Yes! Dr. King said, “...However difficult it is to hear, however shocking it is to hear, we’ve got to face the fact that America is a racist country.” He also said: “...If peace means keeping my mouth shut in the midst of injustice and evil, I don’t want it. If peace means a willingness to be exploited economically, dominated politically, humiliated and segregated, I don’t want peace.” Something that was made very clear to me from this Twitter thread was [the fact that MLK was] explicitly anti-capitalist and was nonviolent in the sense that he fought against state-sanctioned violence; and he was committed to ending the violence of white supremacy in all of its forms. He used nonviolent measures and means as an organizing strategy, not because he was a peaceful, we’re-all-the-human-race-non-radical person. He just saw that, in order to build a mass movement, you need to strategically craft language for those who will read any act of resistance by Black people as violent and as aggressive.

Voices: You mentioned that in Maurice Eldridge’s speech about MLK Day, he said that we need to think about what we do the day before and what we do the day after. Is there anything you think that students, faculty, and staff at Swarthmore who care about this issue and the fact that we have silenced so much of what MLK said, can do to change that narrative? Or in general?

TM: Yes, I have a lot of thoughts about that. I come from a community of nearly all white people who, in their politics were very conservative, and in their voting practices almost all support Donald Trump. When I was in high school, I was met with an aggression and hostility that sometimes looked like racial slurs, grabbing my hair, or racial stereotypes, but other times, looked like teachers and classmates using the whitewashed history of MLK to push back against my beliefs about protesting police violence among other things. Over the course of almost four years here, what has transformed my consciousness to make me aware of issues that affect me and everyone else -- and by issues I mean the history and legacy of white supremacy, the enduring legacy of white supremacy in America and its direct connection to capitalism and to the police and prison system and the military -- is, first and foremost, prioritizing the history, the experiences, and the vocal and written narratives of people who have been targeted the most by those systems.

For me, that has meant taking an Inside-Out course and hearing from friends and scholars who are incarcerated, and understanding the ways my father, a Black police officer, and family members who work in the military, are deeply complicit in the horror of the prison-military industrial complex. It has meant taking the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict course with Professor [Sa’ed] Atshan and seeing how Apartheid functions with my own eyes. It has meant taking Professor [Allison] Dorsey’s history courses, particularly African American History 1865-present; putting historical evidence to the creation of the racist myths that we all still adhere to on some level. It’s pushing past the wariness that had been ingrained in me since childhood -- to always be skeptical of those who don’t resist “properly” -- and instead, listening intently and speaking out intentionally.

I heard a quote recently that said, “Are you looking for answers to your questions, or questions to your answers?” When you think about your education at Swarthmore, are you looking to just be able to master economic models or land a high paying job? Or, are you looking to fundamentally challenge the way you see the world as you know it? To me, it matters what classes you take, it matters who you take classes from, it matters where you are getting your media content from, it matters what you do and don’t accept, and why.

I think Swarthmore students can, in the spirit of Dr. King, make their livelihoods and social justice practices more just by pushing past the generalized ideas of what justice and resistance means. It’s not enough to be someone who is interested in “social justice issues”. It’s [necessary] to put a context, a group, a location and historical time period to those things. For me, that’s listening to narratives of people targeted most by violence through independent media sources like Twitter. [It means] taking classes that center intentionally hidden histories. It means following social media accounts and reading groups that are run by primarily Indigenous and Black people. It means sharing my income and campus resources with people who need it when I’m able to on platforms like Reparations: Requests and Offerings or Philly Bail Out. It’s recognizing that large wealth equals violence directly and indirectly. I am happy to share more thoughts with anyone who asks, but transforming the world also means transforming your circumstances, and at Swarthmore, that’s what it means for me.

Voices: Anything else you want to say to folx who maybe don’t understand where you’re coming from and why you want to be so radical, like why do you want to say that wealth equals violence? Anything you have to say to those people?

TM: Honestly, whatever I’m about to say is speaking to my own set of beliefs, even one or two years ago.  All of my views come from the ability to connect my Swarthmore education to my lived experiences and the lived experiences of those pushed to the margins and there is so much I am still learning. But, I am able to draw a connection between history, of constitutional law, of sociology, of class and power as forms of tangible evidence to support my more “radical” ideas. I challenge anyone who has trouble seeing where my positions are coming from to take courses that reveal this history through scholarship. I’ve learned that history is not about progress, but about systems of power simply appearing differently over time. Only when I began to actively seek out questions to my answers did I begin to acknowledge this fact.
I understand that everyone wants the best for themselves, and that most people believe that they have good intentions. But honestly, the truth that will allow us to enact justice in the world will only be made clear when we go out of our way to look for it, and when we listen to those, like MLK, who have already undergone the journey. After my nearly four years at Swarthmore, after a lifetime of struggle, but only a short period of time with vocabulary and academic knowledge to better understand it, I realize the only way to achieve liberation is to seek it out. To make situations uncomfortable. To choose to speak truth to power even, and especially, when it is unpopular. And I think MLK would agree with that.

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Morgan also recommends the following Twitter accounts (A-Z) that have been influential to her growth and learning:

@AmericasCrimes (informative historical account documenting US war crimes/atrocities)

@BlackSocialists (Black Socialists of America educational/activist organization page)

@BRRN_Fed (Black Rose/Rosa Negra anarchist activist organization)

@ChiBondFund (Chicago Community Bond Fund official twitter -- daily info regarding mass incarceration and prison abolition)

@ClintSmithIII (Black PhD candidate, political commentator, and poet)

@CrimesofUS (Crimes of the USA -- historical account documenting American war crimes)

@dearnonnatives (creator of #DearNonNatives hashtag)

@HamptonThink (Hampton Institute think tank + activist organization)

@IAF_FAI (Indigenous Anarchist Federation)

@iHartEricka (Ericka Hart -- Black queer sex educator, spoke at Swat's campus!)

@IWriteAllDay_ (Black feminist author and commentator-- Creator of #TheKentTest guide for viewing diversity in media)

@IWW_IWOC (Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee)

@lilnativeboy (Queer/Native activist and student)

@NativeApprops (Dr. Adrienne Keene -- Native Professor Of American Studies + Indigenous Studies at Brown University)

@radicaldaily (Daily Radical History -- daily "on this day in history" updates about radical struggles and resistance in the US and abroad)

@ResistingEmpire (Resisting US Empire -- daily historical accounts of anti-imperialist resistance in the US and abroad)

@ShailjaPatel (Shailja Patel -- Kenyan journalist/commentator for BBC World/The Guardian, author of Migritude)

@zinnedproject (Zinn Education Project -- US organization promoting marginalized historical accounts and events)

@ztsamudzi (Black feminist +  PhD student at UCSF, writer/commentator)

Additionally, here is a list of classes that Morgan says have changed her life:

Is God a White Supremacist? -- Professor Tariq al-Jamil

African American History 1865-present  -- Professor Allison Dorsey

African American History 1619-1865 -- Professor Allison Dorsey

Urban Crime and Punishment: Inside Out Exchange -- Professor Nina Johnson

Israeli-Palestinian Conflict -- Professor Sa’ed Atshan

Introduction to Peace and Conflict Studies — Professor Sa’ed Atshan