Last night, the Albion community and Albion College campus gathered downtown together in the historic Bohm Theater for the 2017 Martin Luther King, Jr. Convocation. Professors, students, faculty members, community leaders and members of the local NAACP chapter filled almost every seat to watch an address from Washington Post Columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Eugene Robinson, who gave a speech titled “We’re Someplace We’ve Never Been: Race, Diversity and the New America.”
Robinson’s bi-weekly column in the Washington Post is just one of his many accomplishments. A graduate of the University of Michigan, Robinson was the first African American co-editor-in-chief of the Michigan Daily, U of M’s student paper. Since graduating, Robinson has made major contributions to the field of journalism and politics. In 2009, he won the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the 2008 Presidential election.
The night opened with a performance from the Albion College Concert Choir of “Freedom Come” composed by Ben Allaway, who was in attendance. Patrick McLean, director of the Gerald R. Ford Institute of Leadership for Public Policy and Service, thanked the sponsors of the night, including the local NAACP, the Albion College History department and others. Afterwards, Albion College President Mauri Ditzler was introduced to give the introduction and welcoming remarks to the audience.
Ditzler’s introduction to the convocation highlighted some of the key issues that would be addressed in Robinson’s subsequent speech. Most notable was that of the changing political climate in the U.S., both in terms of the new executive administration and the growing movement of political activism, especially in young people across the country.
Robinson reminded Ditzler of a quote historian Howard Zinn once said regarding activist Eugene Debs, “America always needs more loveable radicals.” Ditzler claimed it was these radicals that make us feel “uneasy” but ultimately push us to become “something better.” Ditzler referred to Robinson as one of these “loveable radicals.”
The “loveable radical” stood up to the name that night when he took the stage to address the racial and political turmoil in the country following President Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 20.
Robinson first presented what he called a “rough, rough draft” of what historians will try to figure out: how these surprising results came to be. To Robinson, it was a “perfect storm” that led to President Trump’s inauguration.
First, Robinson said that Trump was able to make a connection with a large number of white, working-class voters who in the past did not feel inclined to vote. With jobs moving out of small towns and growing opioid epidemics, voting for Trump would let them be heard, Robinson said.
Second was the troubles Hillary Clinton faced. While her potentially overblown email scandal may have influenced the election results, Robinson said, the biggest problem was her name.
“I think historians who are writing many years hence may ultimately conclude that her biggest crime was being a Clinton at a time when people wanted to be excited about somebody,” said Robinson.
Robinson then offered advice as to how to deal with this new American reality. For him and other journalists, it was to continue doing their jobs.
“I’m a journalist, and my reaction has to be to hold this administration accountable,” said Robinson. “Not to normalize the abnormal.”
Robinson thought that Trump’s presidency might have a good effect on journalism, however.
“I think this has been, in some ways, a good experience for the media,” said Robinson. “I think we have learned some valuable lessons we should have never forgotten.”
Robinson believes that Trump’s presidency will be an end to “access journalism” and the media trying to stay on the good side of certain politicians by potentially not publishing unflattering things about them. “It’s not our job to be their buddies,” said Robinson.
For non-journalists, the path is not as clear-cut, but Robinson said the entire country was “entering a new era of protest.” Social media has changed the way many protests happened, and Robinson was particularly struck by the spontaneous protests at JFK and other major airports around the nation just hours after Trump enacted his temporary ban on immigrants from seven Muslim-majority nations from entering the U.S. Robinson said he hopes these kinds of protests lead to more political activism, like voting, running for election in local offices and holding officials accountable.
“We can’t at this point just say, ‘Let somebody else do it,’” said Robinson.
Earlier in the night, history Professor Wes Dick took to the stage to introduce student speaker Sydney Martin, a junior here at Albion. He too, took time to reflect during his remarks, specifically about Albion’s racial history and about past MLK Convocations.
“Indeed, Albion’s story is America’s story,” said Dick, reiterating Albion’s industrial and Great Migration past, “and central to the Albion experience is the story of Albion in black and white.”
After Robinson’s speech, Ditzler gave concluding remarks, reminding those unhappy with the election to have hope and that most of those who voted for Trump were not bad people.
“We’re not on different sides. In fact, if the people who voted for Donald Trump were indeed evil people, then as an educator, I wouldn’t know what to do about it. I would say, ‘Reverend Phillips, convert them,”’ said Ditzler, referring to Albion College Chaplain, Rev. Donald Phillips.
Both Dick and Ditzler spoke of a coming together of people in times of strife, whether it was a group of black migrants who traveled to Albion from the south a century ago, or now when two opposing groups of citizens of different political views can work to come together. Both statements were reminiscent of Robinson’s concluding remarks, which spoke of a coming together to find strength in uncertain times.
“Buckle up, keep reading and when all else fails, it’s OK to turn off the cable TV for a minute. It’s OK to shutdown the phone for a weekend. Take a break. We need the best you to be on the front lines these days, and you’re only the best you when you’re calm and can reflect.”
Photos by Steven Marowski and Emily Miller