Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
On Wednesday, Rev. Dr. Leslie Callahan of St. Paul’s Baptist Church in Philadelphia spoke to the roughly 70 people gathered in Upper Tarble about how “Black Lives Matter” is a revolutionary movement. Presented at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemorative Lecture, which is sponsored by the Black Cultural Center, Office of the President, Dean’s Office, Department of Religion, and Student Budget Committee, Callahan’s talk was titled “Don’t Sleep Now: The Fight for Black Lives in the United States in the Work of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Present,” and described similarities and differences between the Black Lives Matter and Civil Rights Movements.
The event was scheduled to begin at 12:30. Around that time, people were still finding their seats, and the music playing in the background switched to a recording of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Just before 12:40, President Smith welcomed the audience and invited Director of Religious and Spiritual Life Joyce Tompkins to begin with a prayer. When Tompkins finished, Smith asked that everyone take food back to their tables, after which she would introduce the keynote speaker.
Smith offered thanks for the planning which went into the week of events, highlighting the organizations and individuals who sponsored and organized the activities. “The King holiday inspires us to do more, to do better, to do differently, not merely in our own lives, but as members of a nation and a global community struggling to overcome injustice and inequality,” she said. For these efforts, she explained, it is necessary to educate oneself, reflect on the lessons learned, and find motivation.
Smith also shared a brief testament to Callahan’s character: “Now, I first met Dr. Callahan when she was a graduate student at Princeton, and like so many others who knew her then, it was clear to me that not only was she intellectually brilliant, but that she also possessed a spirit that is both profoundly compassionate and courageous.”
After thanking Smith and the organizers of the event, Callahan shared her new title for the talk, which she changed after programs had been printed. Inspired by one of King’s sermons entitled “Remaining Awake through a Great Revolution,” as well as the mantra for the Black Lives Now Movement “Stay Woke,” her lecture aimed to explore King’s work and apply it to modern objectives.
King’s “Remaining Awake” sermon discussed the danger of sleeping through revolutions. He cited Washington Irving’s story of Rip Van Winkle, a man who slept through the American Revolution. Callahan argued that King saw the most significant element of the story to be when Rip slept, rather than the nap’s duration. She continued by drawing a comparison between the American Revolution slept through in the story and the Civil Rights Movement King fought in the heart of:
“The technological and social advances of the time had bridged the geographical gaps in ways that made the world community a neighborhood. Yet King recognized that, even within the transformed smaller world, an unconscious person—more importantly, an unconscious nation—could fail in the ethical commitment necessary to make the neighborhood a brotherhood.”
Callahan also discussed King’s other areas of focus: the Black Church, poverty, and militarism, explaining challenges to the church’s lack of intervention. She mentioned the Poor People’s Campaign, which criticized the disproportionate government expenditures being sent to a war in Vietnam. “Sounds familiar,” she said, and the room fell silent.
From here, Callahan introduced the modern revolution occurring through the Black Lives Matter movement. Due to new technology allowing news such as the shooting of Michael Brown, Jr., to spread almost instantaneously, a greater embrace of the intersectionality between all identities, especially gender identities, the modern revolution is succeeding, she said. Continuing progress, she said, “will require a courageous rejection of the aspiration to and longing for patriarchal and hierarchical organization, as well as an understanding that, if we don’t love all of us, then we don’t actually love any of us.”
Concluding her talk, Callahan said, “We can’t sleep now. We have to stay woke.”
After warm applause, Dion Lewis thanked her again, and expressed gratitude to everyone who had helped organize the events. He stated that one must wonder how to become a “beacon” for justice and equity.
Feedback after the event was very positive. Joy Martinez ’16 said, “I thought the speaker was just really wonderful to listen to in considering the Civil Rights Movement and King’s work.” Geoffrey Shepard ’16 also said, “I thought it was really interesting, really inspiring. I’m glad that we’ve moved beyond just celebrating King’s legacy on one day.”
On Friday, there will be a collection and reception at the Friends Meeting House at 12:30 with the Swarthmore Gospel Choir and a guest Haitian musician.
Image taken by Jacob Demree.