Confronting America’s complexity and contradictions is necessary to carry on the work of Martin Luther King Jr., said higher education leader, historian and journalist Jelani Cobb speaking Wednesday at Oregon State University.
“Being willing to grapple with complexity is precisely what is missing from our vantage point in American history right now,” Cobb said, citing examples from the Civil War to the killing of Tyre Nichols. “It’s this failure to embrace complexity that leads us down the road to enabling demagoguery and disaster. Those two things abide each other.” Cobb’s address, part of the university’s 41st annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemoration, was viewed by nearly 600 people either online or in person at the LaSells Stewart Center on the Corvallis campus.
Cobb is a staff writer at The New Yorker who writes on race, history, justice, politics and democracy and Columbia University’s Ira A. Lipman Professor of Journalism and dean of the Columbia Journalism School. He recently co-edited “The Matter of Black Lives,” a collection of The New Yorker’s most ground-breaking writing on Black history and culture in America, featuring the work of legendary writers like James Baldwin and Toni Morrison. He also has written books about Barack Obama and the hip-hop aesthetic.
Cobb began his talk by saying he considered postponing his visit to OSU so that he could attend the funeral of Nichols, who last month was attacked by Memphis police officers and later died. He referenced that LaTosha Brown, the speaker last year at Oregon State’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemoration, postponed her talk due to her involvement supporting federal voting rights legislation then being debated in Washington, D.C.
“The reason I bring that up is that it is the truest indicator, the truest barometer, of the extent to which the work that Dr. King was about in his life remains to be completed,” Cobb said. “That when we take a moment to celebrate his birth we are being pulled away by the causes that he fought so hard for over the course of his life.”
Exploring the complexity and contradictions of American history, he spoke about the founding of Howard University, which he attended as an undergraduate. Oliver Otis Howard, a Union general in the Civil War, started the university in the wake of the Civil War to educate and uplift former slaves. Cobb noted that later Howard commanded troops in the West, conducting a brutal and horrific campaign against the Nez Perce Tribe leading to the U.S. seizing 7.5 million acres of the Tribe’s land, including lands in Washington, Idaho and Oregon.
“If you look at the history of Oliver Otis Howard in Washington, D.C., you get one version of the man,” Cobb said. “If you look at the history of Oliver Otis Howard in Oregon you get a very different image of him.”
Cobb spent part of his talk focused on current events. He discussed policing in the U.S, particularly in light of the deaths of George Floyd and Nichols, linking the events to cyclical efforts to seek racial justice that were understood by King. He also spoke about how schools teach about race, with a focus on critical race theory and the recent controversy in Florida about changing the content of the Advanced Placement African American Studies course.
The pushback against the AP course and critical race theory follows historical precedent, Cobb said, including during the Civil War era and civil rights era, where advances were followed by steps back.
“As we see this tide of change and anger gaining momentum, we begin to see in real time the unfolding of a counter or backlash,” he said. “And that backlash is meant to instill fear in the hearts of people.”
Cobb’s talk was followed by a question-and-answer session moderated by Nana Osei-Kofi, director of OSU’s Difference, Power, & Discrimination Program and professor of women, gender, and sexuality studies.
Osei-Kofi summarized several questions submitted by students about what they could do in their lives to create change. Cobb deferred to students, insisting it is important for students, who know the local context, challenges and strengths best, to work together to create change, rather than take advice from those without this detailed knowledge.
“The last thing that you need is someone from a different generation telling you how to do what it is that is confronting you,” he said. “We are here to offer insight and maybe a few pointers once you have decided what you are going to do. The most important part of this development is coming to understand that for yourself.”
Osei-Kofi ended the session by asking Cobb what made him hopeful. His response drew on what he has witnessed with the Black Lives Matter movement, particularly after the deaths of Floyd and now Nichols.
“It’s very significant that now we are in it,” he said. “And I think that once you are actually fighting and people are actually clear about the stakes, that’s when you have the most social potential. That’s when you have the most chance of converting potential energy into kinetic energy, and that’s where we are right now.”
Oregon State’s Office of Institutional Diversity hosted the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. commemoration with support from the OSU Foundation and Alumni Association. Cobb’s talk wrapped up a series of events the past several weeks commemorating King, including a peace breakfast, peace march, day of service and other educational programming.