Forging Ahead Through Peaks and Valleys


Photo by Brandon Palmore

King standing before a slide featuring German historian Leopold von Ranke as he discusses human “progress.”

Alissa Silva, Managing Editor

“I’m going to start this by making everyone uncomfortable.”

Social justice activist and senior justice writer at New York Daily News Shaun King started off his presentation at Texas A&M University- Commerce campus by grabbing the audience’s attention with this anticipation-filled remark.

With his reputation of confronting tough issues, the audience was prepared for anything. King instantly settled the audience’s curiosity when asking everyone to move closer to the stage and following with “today this is the type of conversation where it matters if we’re close.”

Believing students are always on the front line of change in this country, King’s main goal with this presentation was to “share one large lesson and give [the audience] a new lens to see the country.”

As a teenager, King was a victim of a hate crime committed by Caucasian students permitting him from attending high school for two years due to spinal injuries. The detective covering the case identified the incident as minor and gave misleading information such as it being non-race affiliated.

Majoring in history at Whitehouse College, King then worked as a high school civics teacher, a motivation speaker at prisons, and also a pastor for 15 years. Shortly after, King found his calling as a social activist that educates the nation on social equality, police brutality, current civil rights movement, race relations, prison industrial complex, and social justice.

While standing next to a slide picturing an old man with a bushy beard, King explained, “It’s incredibly difficult to know a moment in history – to know what moment of history you are in when you are in it. Like today, most of you are concerned with college issues, and it’s hard to discern where you are in the scheme of history.”

He then explained how people use Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr first acts as a bookmark to the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement even though there had been acts made before.

“They didn’t call it that in 1956, at first they didn’t even call it the Montgomery Bus Boycott. They were just everyday people that were tired of being humiliated on public transportation and who took a stand against it,” King said. “It was only history that later gave it a title, gave it perspective.”

Another example King used was Jesus Christ and his last name. King pointed out nobody truthfully knows his last name and it was imposed on him 100s of years later through history.

“History tends to romanticize who people are, and tends to give moments very different perspective,” King said. “I think a lot of us are trying to understand where we are right now in history and that’s what I’m going to teach you today.”

Bringing the audience’s attention to the slide next to him, King explained the bearded man on the slide was Leopold von Ranke and was the first man to establish history during the mid 1800s.

“He was confused because even then and even now, and this gets to the heart of my presentation, there was this thought that human beings were steadily getting better. When he laid out this chronological timeline, he was deeply perplexed. Yes, people get better and improved but when he really studied it, it didn’t look like this. Humanity wasn’t steadily getting better. Sometimes human beings are amazing, but sometimes human beings just really suck. Most human beings think we’re steadily getting better. But what Ranke said, what he realized was people were confusing the steady improvement of technology with the steady improvement of humanity.”

In the midst of Ranke’s research, there was a rapid improvement in medicine, surgery, preservation and refrigeration of food, transportation and the technology behind the modern wheel was rapidly enhancing,” King explained. “Ranke went as far back as he could and discovered human beings will continue to evolve with their technology, machinery, inventions, creations, but the quality of the humanity was not the same steady incline.”

King clicked to the next slide revealing a diagram of human beings shoved into a 1700s boat to be taken from one area to another to be sold into slavery.

“By the time this happened, human beings had been around for thousands of years. If humans are steadily getting better, how do we explain this?” King asked before skipping to the next slide of a black man with a severe scarred back from being whipped.

“This is a man who survived slavery and this is his body. If human beings are steadily getting better, if this is the quality of humanity and people are getting better. And people are just so awesome and so amazing, then how do we explain this?”

The next slide included images of Holocaust victims and a large pile of shoes taken from the victims. “How do we understand the 1900s, where people were taken from their homes and killed? What about the Rwandan Genocide where millions people were hacked to death by machetes for 90 days?

“There’s something in us that really wants us to believe we’re doing life better than the people who came before us. And what Ranke says is, ‘I understand your belief, it’s a bitter pill to swallow that maybe one generation is getting it different than another’,” King said. “But what he said was the facts do not bear out that humans are steadily evolving, because if they were we’d be so amazing, and there are very few days where most of us feel human beings are just so amazing.”

A huge part we’ve tried to show in the Black Lives Matter Movement over these past two years is to show America where we are right now, to awaken the country to the reality of justice”

— Shaun King

King then explained how there are people out there who encourage and inspire him in amazing ways, but neither current presidential candidate does so.

“If humanity is steadily progressing, how do we explain Donald Trump?” King asked rhetorically. “If he is the human evolution for our greatness, if this is true that we have gotten so great – that is deeply discouraging. It’s not true.

“This is true,” he continued. “Sometimes you have Abraham Lincoln and sometimes you have Donald Trump. Sometimes you have Teddy Roosevelt and sometimes you have Hillary Clinton. Sometimes you have John F. Kennedy and then you get Richard Nixon. That humanity, history, does not bear out that we are just getting better and better. Sometimes we’re great and sometimes we’re not.”

King then remarked he wanted to get more personal.

“A huge part we’ve tried to show in the Black Lives Matter Movement over these past two years is to show America where we are right now, to awaken the country to the reality of the justice,” King said.

Another slide displayed the number 102 in bold letters. The number represented the number of unarmed black men, women, and children murdered in this country last year.

The next slide presented a picture of the United States’ 25th president William McKinley. “We would have to go back to 1902 when President McKinley was president of this country to find a single year in this country where more than 102 African Americans were lynched in this country,” King said.

102 people killed during Charleston were only a sliver of the record high for last years police kills of 1,207 people.

“We’d have to go back 104 years to find a single year in the country where that many people were lynched. This is to give you context of where we are,” King said. “That the deadliest hate crime against African Americans in this country in the past 75 years did not take place in the 40s-60s, but took place last year in Charleston.”

The next slide consisted prison statistics of each country per 100,000 people.

“The US has the most populated prisons then any other country, even though it’s no where near the largest country in the world,” King explained. “I need you to understand, that we have more people in prison than in any country in the history of the world right now and it’s an old world.

“There are more African Americans in prison, than South Africa had in the height of apartheid. Most of us look at the part time and say wow that’s ugly, but currently, we have a higher percentage of people in our prison then a part time did at it’s worst,” King said.

US has 698 per 100,000 people while Germany, for example, has 78 per 100,000 people. King then ties this point in with the belief that humanity stays getting better.

“I don’t believe this, I don’t believe it’s true,” King declared emphatically. “Sometimes humans are doing better, and sometime they’re getting worse. It caused me to look at our problems differently and you will find people who say often, wow, I thought we were getting better. Many of us, with good intentions, assume that the election of president Obama was the precursor to a new post racial, only to find out, and every study shows it, that the number of hate groups increase every year since he’s been in office.”

“But what all of us found…whatever you think about politics and whatever you’ve grown to think about Obama, politics aside, there was sometime of peak that was an improvement, but now we have slid back down,” King said.

King then explained position he believes the country is in.

“I think we’re in a dip right now, in the quality of our humanity,” he said. “What worries me about the dip we’re in is dips can last a year, but in the case of something like the transatlantic slave trade , dips can last not just decades…but for hundreds of years. When you are in a dip, you do not automatically find your way out of it. Our country did not just magically end slavery as we knew it.

“If we are in this dip, there are two things that inspire me right now,” King said. “One, if you believe we’re in it, and I’ve tried to press the case that we are…every time we have found ourselves here, we always work our way out and I’m inspired by that possibility.

“Secondly, I’m equally inspired by this; most of the prob¬lems that ailed our country, and while I’ve talked a lot about police brutality and what that means, there are many other problems and issues. We have barely scratched the surface with quality solutions to those problems. I say that because, I would be deeply discouraged if we had tried every-thing we knew to try, and failed and still found our way here, but that’s not the re¬ality. We’ve hardly scratched the surface of the solutions that we need,” King said.

One of the last things King tied into his presentation was the significance of At-lantic magazine’s en¬dorsement of Hillary Clinton three weeks ago. Since starting production in 1856, the magazine has only endorsed two people before this: Abraham Lincoln in 1964 and Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Taking a stand against slavery, the magazine endorsed Lincoln because they believed the country would split into two. After endorsing Lyndon, the Civil Rights Movement was voted on and passed.

“What shook me about the endorsement is not what they said about Hillary Clinton, but that they believe we are in one of those times. There is a Civil War, then there’s the Civil Rights Movement, then three weeks ago,” King said. “Their editorialist said ‘When we take a deep step back, and look at history, we believe we are in one of those deeply troubling problematic times,’ and that really awakened me because I felt like that. And, many of you feel like that, and that’s been the source of so much aches, protests, and frustration because many of you are living out the very thing that they described that we are in one of those times.

“The only way we can find our way is through tremen¬dous effort, hard work, and finding creative ways to come together,” King explained. “We’re not on our way up right now. I don’t feel love, I don’t feel energy, I see some creativity, but the magazine is right, I don’t know what’s go¬ing to happen in 5 days. A new president will be elected and I believe the next day, whoever is not elected and whoever is elected, there is still going to be max frustration and problems.

“Our country decides to do very little about the problems that we have in our economic challenges, immigration form, police brutality, whatever it is, but I am hopeful we will be able to find our way out of this dip because we always do. And ev¬ery time we have, college students and young people and al¬ways played an essential role in leading its self out of holes it finds its way in.

“It will have to be you, and if you’re waiting for someone else to do it, that’s not how it works. I hope you understand better where we are as a country, that we’re not steadily improving. That we sometimes get better and sometimes we get worse.”