Cooley Black Law Student Association hosts film, discussion on M.L. King

– Photo courtesy of Cooley Law

Black Law Student Association participants: member Thomas Matuszak, who emceed and handled technology at the MLK event; President Te Smith; and Vice-President Gwen Thomas.


By Cynthia Price
Legal News

The life of Martin Luther King Jr. was rich and full, much more interesting than the saintly existence he is often portrayed as having.

That is one of the take-aways from a film shown by WMU-Cooley’s Grand Rapids Black Law Student Association (BLSA) on Monday in honor of Martin Luther King Day, Martin Luther King Jr.: The Man and the Dream.

The documentary, originally an episode of the Biography series on A&E, features segments of actual footage from King’s life alternating with interviews of people who knew him, many of them since youth.

These include not only the famed performer Harry Belafonte, but also Andrew Young, the former Executive Director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and later a congressman, and Harris Wofford, a politician and civil rights consultant to President John F. Kennedy. Wofford was instrumental in the attempt to forge an alliance between King and Kennedy, which was never completely successful.

Something a number of these people have in common with M.L. King is a fascination with Mohandas Gandhi and his non-violent campaigns for societal change. That shared interest resulted in a consensus that, difficult as the path of civil disobedience and non-violent resistance might be, it would indeed be the designated strategy in turning the tide toward integration.

And strategic thinking reigned with these new African-American leaders. Wofford refers to the “kitchen table plotting sessions,” where King and his circle would think very deliberately about how to gain equality. Just as many are amazed to find out that the refusal of Rosa Parks to leave her seat on the bus was part of a well-thought-out plan, this sense that civil rights events were intentional and directed may come as a surprise.

There are at least three other counterintuitive themes in the documentary for those not well-versed in King’s life: first, he was very reluctant to become a leader in the anti-segregation movement and went through periods of doubt throughout his activist life. Second, he was a womanizer, which later fed into the smear campaigns of J. Edgar Hoover and others. And third, prior to his assassination King had branched out in addressing situations like the Vietnam war and labor unions, related to but not directly in line with the civil rights movement.

This — along with other factors such as the rise in African-American leaders who espoused more violent means of addressing segregation — resulted in King losing a lot of his supporters and further concentrating his opposition.

Though King himself suspected that he would be killed for his ideas someday, as he struggled with his role in the movement he always wound up on the side of facing down his fears. He came from a fairly prosperous family who had thrived in Atlanta by not questioning the status quo, but ultimately King concluded that being in constant fear of what “the white man” would do was no way to live.

Some recent writers contend that this was King’s greatest contribution to African-Americans: he taught them to face head-on the worst of what could happen, such as being beaten or jailed, and move forward free of fear.

A little over 20 BLSA?members, other WMU-Cooley students, WMU-Cooley professors as well as Dean Nelson Miller and Associate Dean Tracey Brame, and community activists attended the film viewing. Afterwards, BLSA leaders invited those present to talk about the impact King had on them as individuals or on the society they weFirst to speak was LaTaro Traylor, a former Cooley student who has been working in the community prior to taking her bar exam in July of this year.

“I hope we can continue to discuss this. I feel like when people come together and include the younger generation, supernatural things happen,” she said. Later she advised BLSA Vice-President Gwen Thomas that she is more than willing to help increase BLSA?membership, saying that the association was very active and had lots of members when she went to Cooley.

Rev. Bryan Blakely, who leads a community organization called Bates Place Ministries, agreed with Traylor. “It was always the young people who led the movements in America. MLK was a great leader, but the bulk of those in the civil rights movement were the young people. As there’s a changing of the guard coming up in this city, let’s be sure youth are involved,” he said.

Two other young women said they felt it was important to recognize that there is still racism, and that it is critical to remember history.

BLSA President Te Smith told the group that he had attended Alabama State  University in Montgomery and commented, “To be on that campus and be in that place where so many monumental activities took place, I?knew I could not take that lightly.”

According to BLSA?Vice-President Gwen Thomas, there will be a BLSA panel discussion in late February on what she called “probably the most controversial issue of our time, the breach of trust between the African-American community and law enforcement.”

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