By Nick Stephens
Rescheduled four days past its original date due to a snow emergency, Beloit College’s 2011 Martin Luther King Jr. Convocation ceremony was held in Eaton Chapel this past Friday, Jan. 21. President Scott Bierman opened the ceremony by humorously commending the crowd for having trudged their way through snow and cold to witness the address by associate professor, chair of philosophy and religious studies, and the first African-American female to be tenured at Beloit, Dr. Debra Majeed. Bierman takes his welcoming address to a more serious and profound level by including a slide show of mug shots of ordinary men and women who, in the throws of the civil rights movement in the mid-1950s, stood up for what they believed in by sitting down in the ‘white-only’ seats of public buses in Montgomery, Ala. Bierman’s tone quickly transitions from jocular to solemn as he speaks of the revolutionaries projected on the adjacent screen. He implored us to search for even a modicum of shame in the countenance of these laudable individuals. “Look at the clothing they’re wearing,” he demands, “They’ve put on their Sunday best; they want to be remembered for this moment,” and, through Bierman’s brief but profound slideshow, they are remembered. From his words exudes a necessary passion luring us into the appropriate state of mind with which to attentively listen to the following speakers.
Michael Ramsdail ’06 and current president of the Beloit Board of Education, is next to the stage, leading us in a prayer with a message accessible to all: “Keep the spirit in the bonds of peace.” I sit next to Ramsdail for the rest of the convocation and can’t help but smile when I hear him agree with Majeed, hanging on her every syllable, “Mmhmm,” and “That’s right,” he responds. James E. Van De Bogart, former president and member of the Beloit City Council, follows Ramsdail and, as an official proclamation by the city of Beloit, declares this day, Jan. 21, Dr. Debra Majeed Recognition Day. Roaring applause follows and Majeed and Van De Bogart shake hands. Finally, preluding Majeed is Maxwell Olin ’11. Olin speaks of his own experiences as a student and advisee of Majeed’s, of her accomplishments, her fearlessness, and her efforts pushing for the still much-needed ethnic studies major.
Following Olin’s brief introduction, Majeed finally steps up to the podium and is greeted with applause, humbly waving it away as if to say, there isn’t anything special to clap for here. Her first words are fraught with emotion, sharing with us the Islamic phrase of Peace, “A salam alaikum,” (peace be upon you). The gravity in her voice is replaced by gaiety as she talks about how good of a time we would have been having if the MLK youth choir, who performed at last year’s convocation, were here to sing for us. She does this throughout her address, expertly balancing lightness and heaviness in her words. A phenomenal speaker, she’s best described in Bierman’s welcoming statement, “Debra Majeed, her oratory skills reflecting her wisdom and humanity, combined with her obvious energy and charisma, create a presence far greater than any I can muster.” Her style of speaking is such that at times I feel as if I’m sitting in a room with her, one-on-one, listening to her pour her heart out; at other times, I feel as if I’m sitting among a congregation at a Baptist church, hearing a minister with the utmost of passion stir up her flock through the fervency of her sermon; and still, at other times, I imagine I’m at a TED talk, listening to a humanitarian share with us universally acceptable message to actively take a role in making the world a better place.
The theme of her address is “Imagine Better,” and she begins by sharing with us a story of her mother who was plagued by mental illness in the last days of her life, living in a world between this one and the next. In Majeed’s eyes, her mother, albeit through her mental illness, was imagining better. From here we move on to the exploits of King, who, as Majeed puts it, not only imagined better, but acted to make it so. She quotes him as such: “Freedom is not some lavish dish that the white man will pass out on a silver platter while the negro merely furnishes the appetite.” No, we can conclude from this, freedom will not be given; it must be taken. I’m reminded of a quote by Ghandi that reads, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” One cannot expect the world to move in the direction one wants it to go; rather, one must actively move the world in that new direction, a philosophy continually emphasized in Majeed’s address.
Staying true to her feminist side, Majeed includes mention of four African-American women who acted out King’s legacy: Dr. Renita J. Weems, Mary McLeod Bethune, Mary White Ovington, and Clara Evans Muhammad — women who, as Majeed puts it, imagined better and acted to make it so. She goes on to mention myriad names of community members right here in Beloit, humanitarians living King’s legacy by putting their energies into helping others, often others whom they don’t even know and will never meet. Community leaders and organizers who, as she poetically ended each stanzaic description of them, imagined better and acted to make it so. As Bierman put it, “While there are many heroes, there are a few superheroes who turn ordinary humans into extraordinary heroes in their wake. King was such a superhero.” Majeed, and the humanitarians she mentions, are heroes in King’s, the superhero’s, wake.
The address comes to a close with the lighting of candles held reverently throughout the crowd and Majeed speaking her final words, first King’s: “There is the danger, therefore, that after hearing all of this you will go away with the impression that we can go home, sit down, and do nothing, waiting for the coming of the inevitable. You will somehow feel that this new age will roll in on the wheels of inevitability, so there is nothing to do but wait on it. If you get that impression, you are the victims of an illusion wrapped in superficiality. We must speed up the coming of the inevitable.” Majeed’s own followed: “This need not be your last day,” she pauses here, letting it sink in, “of sitting on the sideways. This need not be your last day,” again a pause, “of inactivity, of running away from subversive behavior. But this can be your first day,” pause, “of personal freedom.” She gathers everyone round, or as round as we can form among the pews, and we join together in song: This Little Light of Mine — I’m gonna let it shine, gonna let it shine, gonna let it shine.