A socially distanced group gathered in the University of West Georgia Campus Center Ballroom – with many more tuning in virtually – on Thursday, Jan. 21, to commemorate UWG’s 12th annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration.
“Chaos or community: Where do we go from here?” was the theme and question posed for this year’s weeklong activities. Dr. Rashad Richey – a political analyst for CBS46 News, political commentator for MSNBC and Fox News Channel, and radio personality for V103FM and WAOK – was the featured speaker at the signature event.
The event also featured music and spoken word performances and was followed by a question-and-answer session with Richey.
UWG President Dr. Brendan B. Kelly delivered the welcoming speech.
“I couldn't be more pleased to see human beings gathered together, especially to celebrate an occasion and a person who dedicated his life to bringing people together,” he said. “2020 has been a challenging year, and 2021 is poised to be something very special. When you come out of a crisis, we get a chance to be lifted up.”
Kelly, who moved to Carrollton from South Carolina with his family last March, recounted his love for the area and its importance in American history.
“We've lived all over the country, but coming to a place like Georgia is special,” he continued. “It's a place where change bubbled up from inside of communities and ended up changing the nation. Every year when we celebrate MLK on university campuses, we get to invite students into a story of change, and then, hopefully, ignite their ability to shape the communities they will lead and live in.”
Richey began his keynote by reminding the audience of a King quote that said the function of education is to teach one to think intensively and critically.
“Intelligence plus character,” he began. “That is the goal of true education. True education is not just about academics, but it's also about the moral development of yourself. Tonight, we're here to celebrate a man who believes in the philosophical value that all people are created equal.”
Richey said King utilized a strategy adopted from India as the nonviolence strategy, engaging in social behavioral contrast, a belief that allows you to engage with an opponent in the social sense.
“Because you understand exactly what you're trying to prove, you will exemplify the contrast even clearer,” Richey said. “In other words, you can't become darkness to drive out darkness. You have to become even more of the light. You cannot become the evil that you seek to destroy.”
Richey recognized this is much easier said than done.
“Individuals can become so frustrated that they become just as indoctrinated and tribal as those who they are saying they're fighting,” he said. “But Dr. King laid out a roadmap. He said very clearly that hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.”
Richey added that King believed policy was a way to change the reality of the disenfranchised.
“Policy is a social contract between the government and you,” he explained. “And at the core of good policy, there's always a good outcome. But policy is nothing mystical; It is simply a social contract between the government and your community. Dr. King wanted a better social contract.”
Richey shared his personal experiences by stating he is where he is now because of policy. Raised in and out of foster homes, at age 17 he was arrested for a felony. No stranger to the juvenile system, he said in the back of the police cruiser he felt like he was returning to his “second home.”
However, Georgia had just passed a law that said at 17 you could be tried as an adult. Because of this new law, Richey went to jail with a bond of $22,000 – “$1,000 for each year I could serve if convicted” – and stayed there for a year.
“In that year, I changed,” he told the audience. “A foster mother in the community posted my bond on Christmas Eve. On Christmas Day, as a free man, I had the greatest gift of all. I had my freedom.”
But under the new law, Richey still faced a felony charge that would go on his permanent record if convicted.
“The district attorney of DeKalb County, J. Tom Morgan, did not like Georgia's new law, but he was powerless to change it,” Richey continued. “So he made a policy of his own, the First Offender Act, that said if you’re 17 years old and are charged with a felony, it will never go on your record if you serve your sentence. I benefited from that act. I had five years on parole during which I took my GED. I got into college. Today I have two doctoral degrees, I'm a university professor, and I broadcast on MSNBC.”
Richey closed out the evening by sharing with the audience the three tools everyone should have with them at all times – determination, never giving up fighting for equal rights for everyone; demonstration, bringing attention to issues that need attention; and diplomacy, the willingness to talk with those who politically oppose you or have different beliefs.
“Take those three things and apply them to whatever policy you want to change for the greater good of this world,” he concluded. “And remember Dr. King's strategy was a strategy of contrast, not a strategy of making [the] dark even darker.”
To view a recording of the event, visit the university’s Livestream page.
Photography by Miranda Daniel