Crystal Sanders, an award-winning historian and professor of African American studies, will give the University of Montana’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day lecture this week.
Titled “Back Then They Didn’t Want Me: A Look at Maligned, Misused and Misremembered African American Activists,” her online talk will tell the deeper story of the resistance faced by Dr. King and other activists of his time and the controversial nature of their work.
“MLK’s story often gets whitewashed in terms of being seen as a comfortable, non-controversial figure, but in his lifetime, he was highly controversial in many ways,” said Tobin Miller Shearer, director of UM’s African American studies program. “Dr. Sanders is highly qualified to tell that story. She is one of the up-and-coming scholars of the civil rights movement.”
Sanders’ research is focused on African American history, Southern history and Black education, moving beyond “the two-dimensional story of oppression and submission” to look at the everyday acts of African Americans throughout the last century that helped secure civil rights, according to a press release.
Shearer said UM’s Black Student Union specifically wanted to choose a speaker this year who could talk about MLK’s on-the-ground backstory.
“She is just a perfect fit between what the Black Student Union students here at the university wanted to see happen at this year’s MLK Day celebration and the kind of scholarship she does,” he said.
Shearer added often MLK’s story is told at the surface level, and even that is not done very well.
“Over and over again the students who are coming into my class can’t even tell me when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed or if there was even a 1965 Voting Rights Act, let alone more details about the nature of the struggle at the time,” he said. “The more venues we can open up for telling that story, the better.”
In the context of the Black Lives Matter movement and protests around the country this past summer, Shearer said learning about what successful Black activists of the past faced in terms of roadblocks and resistance can teach us lessons about how to respond to today’s continued struggle for equality and justice.
“We come to accept the change after the fact as if it were inevitable, however, the better we can understand the challenges that change agents face in bringing about that change, the better equipped we are to be part of the solution today.”
In light of last week’s riots and break-in of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., which left five people dead, Shearer said he hopes Sanders’ lecture can instill a commitment to the values of nonviolent social change that supports, rather than disrupts, the nation's commitment to equality and democracy.