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  • Writer's pictureIlsa Govan

The Fierce Courage and Love to Stand for Justice: A Keynote On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

This is a keynote I wrote for Peninsula High School’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Assembly on January 13th, 2012. Thanks to my many friends who contributed thoughts on what they wished they’d heard in high school, to Yarrow for the title idea, and to Caprice for her notes and ideas from similar presentations.


I’ve been an activist for social and environmental justice for most of my life. When I was 7 years old, my mom took me to my first Take Back the Night march to protest violence against women. When I was in high school in 1992, Buck Ghost Horse, a Lakota man I had been learning from, told me about a march, rally and protest commemorating the 500 year anniversary of Columbus Day. This was an event to highlight indigenous perspectives on Columbus, which, as you can imagine are quite different than mainstream European American ideas. Because we didn’t get Columbus Day off of school, I went to all of my teachers to tell them I would be skipping the next day of class to go to this event. Most of them thought it was a great opportunity, but I remember my Physics teacher looking at me and asking, “Do you really think this is more important than Physics class?” Now, that’s not really a question. what does a teacher really mean when when they say, “Do you really think you want to be doing that right now?” I gave him an answer he wasn’t expecting, “Yes, I do think this is more important.” I went to the protest and I still remember what I learned on that day, many of the speakers changed how I see the world and who I am.

I hope today to share some ideas that are different from your usual lessons in school and will inspire you to think about who you are and who you can be in the world.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke, “The hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined nonconformists who are dedicated to justice, peace and brotherhood.”


How many of you make New Year’s resolutions? Every New Year I make several resolutions that I don’t tell anyone so when I don’t follow-through, I can tell myself it wasn’t really something I “resolved” to do, more of a hope or aspiration. This year I’m going to exercise more, learn to speak Spanish, get more involved in political activism and a half dozen other things that I’m not going to tell you on the off-chance you should see me next December and ask how it’s going. However, as silly as a New Year’s resolution might seem, when we say it out loud to someone else, it becomes a commitment to which they are holding us accountable. There is power in committing ourselves to change for the better, especially when we make that decision together. And that can happen any time of year if we choose to make it happen and stick with it. Today you have a choice. It is a new year and you have the power to not only transform yourself, but to transform your school community. I’m here to encourage you to make that community based on principles of justice. One where you stand together against prejudice, no matter what form it takes. As Dr. King called it, “the beloved community.” Think about what that would look and feel like as I share a few ideas with you today for how to make it happen.

Malcolm X spoke: “I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it is for or against. I’m a human being, first and foremost, and as such, I’m for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.”

Although many of you may agree with this statement, one of the tricky things about prejudice or oppression is that you might not even recognize when it’s happening to someone. For example, if you were born without a disability, you likely don’t spend much time thinking about stairs, or sign language interpretation, or being able to read the restroom sign, or how it might be particularly painful to hear someone say, “that’s retarded”. Even when we want to treat others with dignity and respect, we might not realize the negative impact of an off-hand comment. One of the first steps in confronting racism, sexism, homophobia, or ableism is recognizing we all have our own biases and stereotypes. They are frequently something we’ve learned from others and not given a lot of thought. This is nothing to be ashamed of, but it is something to take responsibility for. We can do that by listening and believing people who are experiencing the particular form of prejudice they’re talking about. For example, I have a friend with Down’s Syndrome. He pointed out hearing the word retarded used to refer to someone or something, brought up a slew of painful memories and recent experiences. Even though it might feel to you at first like they’re “being too sensitive”, it is quite likely they understand this form of prejudice better than you because of their experiences. We all have blind spots to our subtle, unearned advantages or privileges. One of the ways to tell when you have a privilege is noticing the areas where you are considered normal while “others” are named. We have left-handed scissors, but no right-handed scissors. We have a WNBA but not an MNBA. Here are a few of my favorite examples of this pointed out originally here in the blog Sociological Images.

Multicultural crayons

As a white person, I never noticed that band-aids, crayons and clothing labeled “flesh” were actually designed to look, at least somewhat, like my skin color. I was taught to be colorblind, which really meant I was taught to think being white was normal and pretend I didn’t notice the rich cultural differences of people. As if noticing these differences would mean we couldn’t get along with one another. It wasn’t until an African American friend pointed out the “flesh tone phenomenon”, that I began paying attention. If you have the privilege of not facing discrimination for your identity, it is even more important to speak up. I was getting an A in a college math class where the teacher wasn’t explaining concepts clearly and gave tests on material she hadn’t taught. Most of the students were in the C-F range and what usually happens in this situation is the teacher blames them for not working hard enough or they blame themselves for ‘just not being good at math’. However, we recognized there was a problem with the instruction, so I went to talk with the teacher about our concerns. Because I was doing well in the class, it didn’t look like I was just worried about my own grade. In the same way, if you are able bodied, or straight, or male, or white or wealthy, you are in a unique position to use those privileges to stand with other people for all of our rights. In fact, many people whose voices are silenced in high school are counting on you.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke, “On some positions, Cowardice asks the question, “Is it safe?” Expediency asks the question, “Is it politic?” And Vanity comes along and asks the question, “Is it popular?” But Conscience asks the question “Is it right?” And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because Conscience tells him it is right.”

Once you’re noticing prejudice, the next step is deciding when and how to act. Sometimes, when you’re not a member of a group facing bias, you may not stand up for others because you’re afraid of what will happen to you. If I hear someone being teased for “acting gay” and I tell the perpetrator to stop, will the teasing then focus on me? Understand that oppression hurts everyone in different ways. For example, even if you are not directly targeted by homophobic comments your freedom to express yourself, in the way you act or don’t act “manly” enough, in the way you dress, in the way you speak, in the way you dance, is limited. Your right to an environment that welcomes all forms of human expression is controlled, possibly with the threat of violence. My mom was holding hands and walking with a female friend of hers when a man walked by and literally checked her shoulder. She was surprised and confused by his obviously intentional aggression, so she asked her friend, “Did we do something wrong?” Her friend replied, “Only if you think two women holding hands is wrong. He thought we were lesbians.” What kind of world do we live in where two women in their fifties can’t show public affection for one another without facing a violent response? Oppression hurts everyone.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

If you stand aside quietly, your consent is implied. It is only when you find the fierce courage to speak up, that you will realize how many will stand with you. We usually hear about peer pressure as a negative thing. However, peer pressure can be a powerful force to improve the culture of your community. Now let’s talk about how you’re going to make that change together! (Note: The next section is adapted from Responding to Everyday Bigotry: Speak Up!

Find an Ally/Be an Ally

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke, “It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tired into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one destiny, affects all indirectly.”

Connect with a few friends who share your concerns. Join the Gay Student Alliance or Diversity Club and invite others to join. Together, you can make a plan and be ready. Choose one small step you want to take first. This will allow you to build momentum as you experience small wins. If it doesn’t go so well the first time, you’ll have supporters to talk to and revise your plan. Know you will get another chance.

Identify the Behavior Rather than Labeling the Person

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke, “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars… Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

People don’t often think of love as a fierce tactic for justice. When I was in 4th grade, there was a 2nd grade boy in the neighborhood who used to beat up and tease all of the smaller kids. So I took it upon myself, in a most self-righteous way, to beat him up and teach him a lesson about how it feels. That didn’t really change his behavior. I wonder now, what did he really need? Was he being hurt by adults in his life and trying to find a way to regain some power and control by acting out the same behaviors? He probably needed a friend. Someone he could talk and play with. He probably needed to laugh a little more and hurt a little less. Rather than my fists, he needed love fierce enough to hold his pain. If you are attacking someone for making a biased comment by calling her names, she is not likely to say, “Oh, you’re right, I was being a total B. I’m so glad you pointed that out!” Even worse, we tend to rely on names that perpetuate oppression because of the additional hurt they cause. When a female student from UCLA posted a rant about Asians in the library, many of the responses referred to her as a dumb blond, using stereotypes of women to discredit her. Instead, name the behavior. What exactly did the person say or do that was offensive? You don’t have to have a quick or witty response. You don’t have to justify yourself. Try asking a question such as, “What did you mean when you said that thing that started with, I’m not racist but, …?” It is easy to go on the defensive or attack mode. It is easy to walk away and tell someone else what an idiot so and so is. It is much harder to love enough to engage a person who’s offended you in a conversation.

Set Limits

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”

Sometimes, the best you can do is set limits. I don’t allow my friends to tell racist jokes around me. I know they may tell those jokes in other places, but I have the right to create that boundary in my environment. They may judge me, think I need to lighten up, but I know that even when they tell the joke and I’m not around, they’re thinking about what I said. I love them, know they can change, and also recognize their change will not happen simply because I want it to. It will happen because they want it to. In the meantime, I do have the power to ask them to stop or to walk away.

Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke: “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. That is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”

Ultimately, I’m talking about aligning what you believe in with how you behave and collectively creating a community where all flourish. If you believe in love, compassion, and treating people how they want to be treated, make that evident by noticing differences and believing people’s experiences. If you believe in principles of equity, you can take small steps every day to stand against injustice. If you believe your school community should support liberty and justice for all, you must find the fierce courage and love to speak out. And in this struggle, know you are not alone. You are standing on the foundation laid by people throughout history who have risked their lives for all of humanity. Some, like Dr. King, you already know about. But you’ll likely never know the names of the millions of heroes and sheroes just like you, in high schools all over the world, who chose to join the fight to create better, more equitable environments. You can be a part of a legacy of justice seekers. Think about one thing you could do to stand up against bias. Take a moment now, and think about your choice. Will you stand for justice? And once you’ve made your decision, your resolution, I’m going to ask you to do something to make you accountable to your peers. Raise your hand, raise your fist, raise your thumb if you’re shy, or stand up if you choose to find the fierce courage and love to stand for justice. Look around and see who is with you. Today, right now, you can transform your community.

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