Photo by Ethan Castro (He/him)
In commemoration of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day federal holiday on Monday, January 21, 2019, the Illinois Tech Office of Community Affairs and Outreach Programs held an open lunch and panel on the afternoon of the prior Thursday, January 17. Director of Community Affairs Alicia Bunton began the panel by introducing the three guest speakers — Michelle Duster, Shanita Akintonde, and Jimi Akintonde.
Duster, a Colombia College Chicago faculty member, is also a distinguished author and speaker, as well as a descendant of the famous Black journalist and activist Ida Bell Wells-Barnett (more commonly known as Ida B. Wells). Shanita Akintonde, another faculty member at Colombia College Chicago, has specializations and experience in the four areas of marketing, media communications, diversity, and leadership, while also holding the distinction of being an Illinois Tech alum. Finally, Jimi Akintonde is a current civil engineering student at Illinois Tech and is also a member of our university’s chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE).
Starting the panel, Duster began by retelling the story of her great grandmother, Wells, paying specific attention to the very young age at which her activism first started; Wells was only 22 years old when she sued Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad in 1884 for forcing her out of her train car seat after she refused to give it up. As Wells moved into journalism, she found herself under constant threat and attack, but continued to seek “ownership over her own voice” and draw attention to the “terrorism in the Black community” that was so rampant at the time in the form of mob violence, lynching, and a pervasive narrative of racist sentiment. Duster used the example of Wells, as well as others in her family, as a way of inspiring the current generation of activists, citing how her great grandmother fought for so many different progressive causes, including civil rights, women’s suffrage, fair housing, ending segregation in schools, and even ran for state senate in 1930.
Shanita Akintonde then began her portion of the panel by once again lending credence to the notion that activism can and should begin at a young age, noting that King himself was assassinated for his efforts at the age of 39. However, this should not be seen as a discouraging point. Rather, Shanita Akintonde hoped that it would allow those in the audience to “give yourselves credence to the change you can mobilize.” She then turned to a 1967 speech on social change that King gave in which he presented the point that the U.S. was undergoing a process of “psychological murder” wherein people were being denied their basic rights on the basis of the color of their skin. The counter efforts to resist against this narrative, however, “do not need to be physical,” as she cited the example of her using her voice as a writer for the Chicago Defender. “Doors that are shut to you based on race or gender could be opened by raising your voice.” Finally, she made the note that individuals of color should not be ashamed of their past or interests and instead “should be proud and be able to own the things that are ours without external validation.”
The youngest member of the panel, Jimi Akintonde gave the final portion of the panel by looking towards the current precedent of youths enacting change that he sees in the world today. In terms of what he wants to see and what can be implemented by future activists, he related his efforts to his current priority of focusing on his life as a student. To that end, he cited much of his current work in schools across the south side of Chicago, helping to create interest in STEM programs and technical fields in future students, as well as using chess as “an instrument for critical thinking and forward planning.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is, for many, a day of solemn reflection over the nonviolent activism of generations past and the strides they made to creating an American society that is better rooted in the notions of equality for all people. However, this holiday also comes with the sobering reminder that there is much work to still be done in this regard, and it is up to the current and future generations to remember the sacrifices made and continue these efforts.
Photo by Ethan Castro (He/him)