Reimagining Equality: The legacy of Dr. King and gender equality in the modern day

Women and people of color have every right to be impatient, and we all need to solve these problems as soon as possible, Hill said. (Amar Batra/The Daily Campus)

As we approach the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, it is important to take a look at where this country stands on the issues of equality and civil rights that King so passionately fought for. While the rights of African-Americans are still contested across America, 2017 saw the gender equality movement gaining traction, highlighted by the rampant sexual abuse scandals that dominated the headlines. Considering the relevance of both racial discrimination and gender discrimination, it seems only fitting that the university would invite Anita Hill to speak on these issues at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Living Legacy Convocation.

The Convocation opened with short speeches from Joelle Murchison, Assistant Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer, President Susan Herbst and Irma Valverde, a member of the UConn class of 2018 and Undergraduate Student Government President.

President Herbst focused on the importance of hope, using the example of Dr. King’s vindication from the Supreme Court after the uncertainty felt toward the end of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Valverde spoke on applying Dr. King’s messages of understanding to the modern day. In her opinion, the best way to confront people with differences of opinion or background is to see, acknowledge and embrace their humanity.

“We need to see the essential humanity of the people we interact with on a daily basis,” Valverde said.

Also appearing were the UConn Chamber singers, who performed two selections: “Indodana” and “Rocking Jerusalem.”

The rest of the program was dedicated to Hill, who began with a quote from Dr. King, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” This perfectly summarized many of the points that she went on to make concerning the impact that an unjust system has on its victims, its perpetrators and bystanders. One of Hill’s opening points was that all people should expect the same privileges in their schools, universities and workplaces as they expect in their homes: safety, the ability to grow and develop and for their contributions to be regarded and rewarded.

For the rest of her speech, Hill mainly focused on the topic of sexual misconduct in the workplace. Hill experienced this sort of harassment firsthand from Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, famously testifying against him before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Instead of talking about herself, Hill mainly focused on the struggle of other women to gain justice, outlining the achievements made over the past 50 years.

Hill began with the passage of Title VII (which forbade discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin) in the Civil Rights Act 1964. Unfortunately, gender discrimination was given very little focus at the time. Hill cited one magazine from the 60s which alleged that nine out ten women in the workplace had been subjected to sexual advances at work. In 1972, the government passed Title IX, which was meant to give further protection to women against harassment. However even that did little to help. As Hill pointed out, in some cases women had no one to complain to or would not be listened to at all.

One of her strongest points was on the nature of change. As she put it, change has always come about because there are people who have hope who keep moving us forward. In the case of gender discrimination, many of the earlier victories came as a result of the hard work of African-American women like Mechelle Vinson. Vinson sued her former employer, Meritor Savings Bank, after years of sexual extortion from her boss. Vinson took her case all the way to the Supreme Court, where they ruled that her boss’ actions proved to be a violation of Title VII. Before, women who sought legal justice against harassment were told that this was a personal, not a legal, matter.

The reason Hill brought up all of these stories goes to point on how the current “Time’s Up” or “Me Too” movement got started. To paraphrase Hill, we are not here because of Harvey Weinstein or Hollywood celebrities or the New York Times publishing the stories of these women.

We are here because of “movements in the 1960s-70s, women in the 1970s-80s who stepped up with little hope of success, people in the 1990s who shared their stories, and college students around the country who demanded that we get here.”

She explained that she is proud to have served in this movement, using her own testimony to make it easier for more people, men and women, to share their stories in the past three decades, but that she also feels that we must recognize the achievements of the women who came before and after her.

Hill ended her speech by describing what must be done to secure equality. Instead of “institutional betrayal,” where companies protect their own against scandal, there must be more “institutional courage,” thoroughly investigating claims and removing institutional wrongdoings and biases.

She also pointed out the need of due process for the accuser and the accused, making sure the accuser’s words are taken just as seriously. Hill highlighted the importance of protecting men and women in the military from sexual assault, “protecting those who protect us,” as she said. These sorts of shared responsibilities that we all have to end sexual misconduct and gender discrimination are what Hill had been getting at in her opening quote from Dr. King.

Hill closed with another quote from Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”: “I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.”

Women and people of color have every right to be impatient, and we all need to solve these problems as soon as possible, Hill said.


Evan Burns is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at evan.burns@uconn.edu.