Kimberlé Crenshaw was only nine years old when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April 1968. Her school was let out early that day, and the young students were directed by community activists to Jerusalem Baptist Church for a makeshift memorial service.
Despite the packed church, when the activists asked if anyone had anything to say about Dr. King, they were met with silence.
It was young Crenshaw who broke that silence. “It just seemed so wrong to me that this man could lose his life fighting for us, fighting for the we,” Crenshaw recounted to a packed audience of students and community members in Salomon on Monday night. “We were allowing ourselves to be silent. Something blew up inside me, and before I thought the better of it, I was on my feet and the entire church was staring at a skinny bespectacled third grade girl … I heard words coming out of me that were not mine, exhorting everyone that we must not let his death be the end, that we had to pick up where he left off and continue to walk in his footsteps.”
That was the moment when Crenshaw first became aware that she had been “born into a history that bequeathed upon people like us …countless burdens.” King’s death, followed by the death of her father a year later, set Crenshaw on a trajectory toward civil rights advocacy and activism.
Crenshaw is a law professor at the University of California Los Angeles and Columbia Law School and an acclaimed lawyer best known for developing Critical Race Theory and the term intersectionality. In her lecture, she spoke on a variety of topics such as affirmative action and racism in higher education, in addition to her role in beginning the #SayHerName movement.
Crenshaw said that the systems of higher education were not built to allow students to voice critical opinions about either the status quo or the role of race in disciplinary systems. She emphasized how the integration of higher education systems was not necessarily intended to benefit students of color. “Diversity was good for the university, and for the students whose worldview would be broadened by exposure to others,” Crenshaw said.
She also spoke about how activism against police brutality has organized more frequently around the deaths of the black men while ignoring the black women also killed by the police. She started the hashtag #SayHerName in February 2015 to raise awareness about the women who have been murdered by police.“The fact remains that black women and girls have been killed by police at disproportionate rates,” Crenshaw said. “Only one in 10 American women are black but three in 10 American women killed by police are black.”
Crenshaw’s speech was organized and hosted by the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America, the Department of Africana Studies/Rites and Reason Theatre and the Petey Greene Program as the keynote lecture of the “50 Years Since 1968” initiative. The year of commemorative programming “reflect(ed) on the meaning and significance of that remarkable year and examines the state of the world a half-century later,” according to the Department of Africana Studies website. The initiative was meant to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the walkout by black University students and their allies to protest “the small number of black faculty and the absence of a black studies curriculum,” according to the Department of Africana Studies website. Previous events included a film screening, a digital gallery and the AFRI 1968: “A Year in Review” course. Crenshaw’s speech was delayed until this month because it took more time to organize.
Celeste Kelly ’22 decided to attend Crenshaw’s keynote lecture after hearing her speak previously at a diversity conference. “Those challenges and struggles have really been shaping my experience (at Brown),” Kelly said. “I came to this (talk) to seek an outlet from that and hear from somebody who I guess sees life through a similar lens.”
Providence community member Anders Lindgren attended the lecture after hearing about it from a member of an anti-racism and pedagogy group to which he belongs.
“It was very motivational,” Lindgren said. He was especially struck by her account of a civil rights lawyer who, while sharing some of Crenshaw’s political beliefs, opposed Crenshaw’s attempt to organize a constitutional law and minority issues course at Harvard in the 1980s. “I really enjoy her reflections on the different ways in which people who used to be standard-bearers can become obstacles, and I think that was very powerful, hearing about her own activism and Harvard Law School and fighting some of the people who used to be her idols.”