Carleton College's student newspaper since 1877

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Byrd delivers convo on civil rights pioneer

<olph Byrd, a former Carleton professor and current professor of American Studies at Emory University, delivered his convocation speech entitled “Regarding James Weldon Johnson” on Oct. 1. Byrd is an acclaimed civil rights scholar, and founder of both the Alice Walker Literary Society and the James Weldon Johnson Institute at Emory University, the first institute established at Emory specifically for the purpose of honoring the achievements of African Americans. A noted author, Byrd is also a former English professor at Carleton, where he was chair of the program of African and African American Studies.

Byrd opened convocation by recalling his time at Carleton, even pointing out a former student who happened to be sitting in the audience. He then segued quickly into his speech, briefly describing early points in the civil movement, such as the Niagara Movement and the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). His purpose in the speech, he explained, would be to “introduce [the audience] to James Weldon Johnson…a man whose leadership in the last century paved the way for Dr. Martin Luther King and others.” This information, he told the audience, was essential in order to “reaffirm the beloved goals of the civil rights movement,” which are currently under threat.

Johnson, whom Byrd described as a “pioneer for King’s dreams,” was an early civil rights worker who first became interested in politics in 1904, when he became the treasurer (and later president) of the Colored Republicans Club. He had also been an editor at the New York Age newspaper during the time when the newspaper famously defended Booker T. Washington in his argument against W.E.B. Dubois. In 1916, when Johnson was offered a position with the NAACP, he “threw himself” into his work, traveling extensively and dramatically increasing the NAACP’s membership. Johnson was particularly passionate about anti-lynching measures, especially after he was almost lynched himself. Citing Johnson’s dedication, organizational skills, and work with legislation (particularly anti-lynching measures), Byrd praised Johnson’s “pioneering leadership” in the struggle for justice. By looking at Johnson’s life, hard work, and struggles, Byrd concluded, one could better understand the “American race problem.”

After his discussion of Johnson’s role as a civil rights leader, Byrd transitioned to a more modern topic, specifically the “strange ambivalence between race and rights” that he believes currently exists both on the political spectrum and in “King’s beloved community.” Although Johnson and others worked tirelessly to eliminate discrimination, Byrd argued that today’s leaders are sometimes hypocritical in their stance on civil rights. Specifically, he denounced the homophobic stance of the Reverend Bernice King, daughter of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as contrary to her parents’ legacies, especially that of her mother, who had continued her role in the “struggle for justice” even after her husband’s murder. It is unacceptable, Byrd told the audience, to support the idea of “hierarchies of depression.” Instead, those who have inherited the legacy of the civil rights movement, like Reverend King, should support equality for all, rather than “dehumanizing certain minorities” just as they themselves had been at one point.

Byrd also connected this hypocrisy to the modern political spectrum, specifically calling out members of the Tea Party. He alluded to their actions on the anniversary of Dr. King’s famous speech “I Have a Dream,” denouncing the way that Glenn Beck and the other Tea Partiers “claimed King as one of their own” while simultaneously promoting hateful practices towards gays and other minorities. How, Byrd asked, do we defend the ideals of the civil rights movement from the modern-day hypocrites?

To conclude his speech, Byrd proposed three ways to solve his dilemma. First, he said, we must commit ourselves to a “new revolution,” seeking freedom and civil rights for people of all minorities. Second, we must admit our perception of race. “Notice race,” he advised, “rather than ignoring or trivializing it.” Finally, he proposed that we look to create a cosmopolitan society by “reimagining citizenship” so that it includes all people. Overall, he urged, we must “move beyond the denial of a colorblind society,” and instead focus our energies on continuing the work of civil rights pioneers such as James Weldon Johnson.

Leave a Comment
More to Discover

Comments (0)

All The Carletonian Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *