Wednesday, April 4. marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. On April 4, 1968, King Jr, arguably the most influential activist in American history, was shot and killed by James Earl Ray at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.
SUNY New Paltz commemorated the life and legacy of the American icon in multiple ways.
In an email from President Donald P. Christian, students were informed that at 7:01 p.m. (the time King Jr. was assassinated), the carillon on Van den Berg Hall would ring 39 times, responding to a request from the King family “asking churches, college campuses and other institutions across the nation to toll their bells 39 times at 6:01 p.m. Central Standard Time.”
Another way King Jr.’s legacy was celebrated on campus was at “Conversation One,” a weekly discussion group organized by the Dean of the library, Mark Colvson, whose members discuss different social issues and shares personal experiences with those issues. The SUNY New Paltz website describes the events as “a place to come to process what’s working on you or in you around exclusion, discrimination and oppression.”
In an email regarding the discussion, Colvson mentioned that “schools are almost as segregated as they were 50 years ago.” Data from the National Center on Education Statistics backs up Colvson’s claim. As reported in The Atlantic, “the number of segregated schools (defined in this analysis as those schools where less than 40 percent of students are white), has approximately doubled between 1996 and 2016.” Along with this, the percentage of black students attending these schools rose from 59 to 71 percent between 1996 and 2016.
The data supporting segregated schools doesn’t end there. In 2016, the United States Government Accountability Office reported that in 2013-14, the number of high poverty schools (those where more than 75 percent of students qualify for free/reduced-cost lunch) made up of 75 to 100 percent black or Hispanic students rose from 14 percent to 17 percent of all schools. While the number of low poverty schools (those where less than 25 percent of students qualify for free/reduced lunch) made up of 0 to 25 percent black and Hispanic students decreased.
One participant in the “Conversation One,” discussion personally experienced segregated schools. He recalled being forced to remove his child from his local public school (which was made up of mostly white students) after he faced extreme bullying. Another participant spoke about how the decreasing quality and safety of their local public school caused them to have to use funds that would otherwise be passed down to their children to send them to private school.
Colvson shared a shocking statistic with the group, stating that once a neighborhood is more than 10 percent of people of color, it becomes more likely to experience property loss. He made reference to a point made in the aforementioned email, where he explained that brown-skinned children are “nearly as likely to end up in poverty as their grandparents were.”
According to a report published by the U.S. Department of Commerce in September 2017, the median household income of black citizens in the United States in 2016 was $39,490. Compared to the $65,041 median household income of white, non-Hispanic citizens.
In fact, a similar report by the Department of Commerce in 2013 stated that more than 30 percent of black or African American citizens fell below the poverty line, while only a little more than 10 percent of the country’s white alone population found themselves in the same economic position.
“If you are dark-skinned and you want to live with other dark-skinned people, you have to accept the fact that you will not be able to pass down wealth to your children,” Colvson said regarding to the economic issues commonly associated with living in an area with a high population of people of color.
Another topic of the discussion was how not to only recognize these issues, but to do something about them. Members discussed how we often look at these neighborhoods and think that these neighborhoods are beyond help, when this is not the reality.
Everything mentioned in the discussion tied back to King Jr, however, and the impact he had on not only the country, but the entire world. One participant noted how King Jr not only brought the issues he was passionate about to light, but also offered ways that the public could get involved and make a change.
The “Conversation One” discussion group meets every Wednesday at 4:30 p.m. in the Sojourner Truth Library.