Sunday, January 15, 2006

Educator discusses link between nonviolence, civil rights

BY DIANE KNICH, The Island Packet
Published Saturday, January 14, 2006
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On the day of the historic march on Washington in 1963, Herman Blake was in a coffee shop on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, Calif. As Martin Luther King Jr. made his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, the highlight of the event, Blake and fellow graduate students talked about the futility of the effort.

Photo: Herman Blake, director of the University of South Carolina Beaufort's new Sea Islands Institute, speaks at the university's south campus Friday.
Jonathan Dyer/The Island Packet

"In the 1950s and 1960s, I was an angry young man," Blake, director of the University of South Carolina Beaufort's new Sea Islands Institute, told a group of students, faculty and community members at the university's south campus Friday. "Cynicism, doubts and fears kept me from embracing nonviolence" as a strategy for oppressed people to promote social change.

"I am one who came late to the veneration of Dr. Martin Luther King," he said.

USCB sponsored Blake's presentation, titled "The Dreamer and The Dream in a New Millennium," to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Blake, the former director of African-American studies at Iowa State University and founder of the Oakes College at the University of California Santa Cruz, where he was the provost until 1984, said he was slow to embrace the philosophy of nonviolence. But now he's deeply committed to it.

And in that way, he said, he is like King, a man who also developed his philosophy, methods and strategies over time and through education.

King, a Baptist minister who was the son and grandson of Baptist ministers, believed in the power of Christian love. But he was not certain it could overcome the oppression and racism in America at that time, Blake said.

King studied the writings of different philosophers and was moved by the work of Mohandas Gandhi.

He learned in theory that the "Christian method of love operating through Gandhi's method of nonviolence could be a potent weapon in the struggle against oppression," Blake said.

But King's intellectual theory wasn't put to the test until the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott in 1955. There, Blake said, King found it worked.

King was asking for a great deal from black people in the south in the 1950s, Blake said. These were people for whom "bombing, lynching and unspeakable acts of terror were part of their daily lives."

But King asked them "to respond to violence with passive resistance, (to respond) to anger with silence, and to meet hate with love," Blake said.

"As people respond to hate with love, they are transformed," he said. "The nonviolent approach does something to the hearts and souls of those who are committed to it."

It also demands a lot of its followers because it requires them to "avoid internal violence of the spirit," Blake said. "Not only must you refuse to shoot a person but (also) refuse to hate a person."

To carry out King's dream and vision in a university setting today, Blake said, students must exercise discipline and study challenging theories. They should not study "the easy, the simple and familiar."

Faculty members should "hold high expectations for students within a framework of respect for their intellects."

"So often, students use their persuasive power to get faculty members to ease up expectations," Blake said.

But students must be challenged to develop creative visions of future, he said.

"We have the chance to shape the future in unimaginably good ways."

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