Changing Hearts, Minds — and Actions

By Nichole Owens ’94, November 25, 2020
The college's MLK Scholar Program works to create change.

In 1963, before the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led the March on Washington, a survey found that 66% of white Americans believed there was no race problem.

“They didn’t understand why his March on Washington had to happen. They didn’t understand what the ‘Negroes’ were doing; they didn’t understand King,” said RahKim “RahK” Lash, director of the Center for IDEAS (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Social Change) and the MLK Scholar Program at Ithaca College. “Over the course of theCivil Rights Movement, Black folks were told they wanted too much too fast. Even if you just focus on King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, religious leaders were telling Dr. King, ‘You’re moving too fast’; ‘This isn’t how you do it’; and, ‘This isn’t how you go about justice.’”

A 2019 survey from the Pew Research Center showed that the perceptions of white Americans hadn’t changed much. And Lash sees echoes of the same sentiment playing out today. As Black Americans continue to speak out about the injustices they face—by kneeling during the national anthem or by marching in cities across the country—some observers criticize the approach . . .and miss the point.

“Folks are saying, ‘Don’t do it like this. Do it like that.’ But then we’ve been doing it like that, and every other way, and we still haven’t gotten what we need,” Lash said. “Changing Aunt Jemima and giving folks Juneteenth off doesn’t address structural oppression. Those are things you probably should have done many, many years ago. Those might be some good first steps, but that’s not what people are asking for. So it begs the question, ‘Are we really listening to each other?’”

MLK Scholars at Ithaca College get a chance to immerse themselves in the experience of Civil Rights leaders. 

With the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many other individuals, Lash said there has been a “white awakening.” But with this greater awareness of the struggles Black Americans face, he said, must come action.

Lash emphasized that, while it’s important to change hearts and minds, it’s also important to change policy. “Policy is what’s going to protect me if you decide not to change your heart and mind,” he said. “We need policies to protect us. That’s why it’s so important to talk about voting.

“I continually hear that it’s different this time. But we have to ask, ‘How? How are we going to make sure it stays different?”

RahK Lash, director of the Center for IDEAS (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Social Change) and the MLK Scholar Program

“I continually hear that it’s different this time,” Lash said. “But we have to ask, ‘How? How are we going to make sure it stays different?’ This is nothing new, so it’s not about joining book clubs, and it’s not about coming to the meeting to say, ‘I read the book.’ How have actions changed?”

That’s exactly why it’s so important to teach young people about the history of the Civil Rights Movement, as Lash does with incoming students in the Martin Luther King Scholar Program—so they can see not only how far we’ve come but also how far we still have to go as a country.

“It’s an opportunity for them to touch history, to connect with the past, but it also helps them to see themselves,” he said. “We’re looking at history because we have to have this foundation to see how we began to understand where we are. That foundation allows students to know that, number one, we’re inheritors of progress. No matter how it feels, we’ve inherited progress. There’s a collective struggle, and it’s important for them to see the struggle and the foot soldiers who fought it on the forefront, especially with this one movement, so they can see that in the conversations about racism today. ”

Each year, new students in the MLK Scholar Program are required to take a three-credit course in U.S. civil rights, which includes a five-day tour through cities in Georgia and Alabama that were key to the Civil Rights Movement: Atlanta, Montgomery, Selma, and Birmingham, as well as several stops in between.

“All of us have the capacity to serve, no matter what we know or don’t know. Just take those first steps towards action because it’s what we do that will define us, not just how much we know.”

RahK Lash

“It’s an opportunity to not just read about history in a book but to touch and talk to someone who was on Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday,” Lash said. “We still have a few foot soldiers herewith us.” With the deaths of civil rights icons like Rep. John Lewis, this opportunity becomes all the more priceless.

Students get to talk to activists like Carolyn Maull McKinstry, who is a survivor of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham,Alabama. As the church secretary at the time, she answered a call that turned out to be a bomb threat, and the bomb went off, killing four young girls.

“They get to talk to Dr. McKinstry, and that’s a precious opportunity, because we don’t know how long they’re going to be here with us,” Lash said.

Another important element of the MLK Scholar Program is service.

“All of us can serve,” Lash said. “All of us have the capacity to serve, no matter what we know or don’t know. Just take those first steps towards action because it’s what we do that will define us, not just how much we know.”

The MLK scholars also take a seminar with Dr. Sean Eversley Bradwell as sophomores, Researching Social Justice.In this class, they take a deeper dive toward understanding civic engagement and pivot from the volunteer model of service required during their first-year experience. Scholars choose their focus area of research and interest in social justice and how they can connect with community partners and organizations in Tompkins County to address social justice–based needs. This varies from scholar to scholar, from working with retirement centers on how they think about the various needs of their diverse community members to using ballet to support local youth of color as they develop literacy skills and strengthen their love of books.

The current sophomore class came together as first-year students to send representatives to a conference on student leadership and activism. They have since been working on plans to use the resources gained for civic engagement as a cohort.

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