Professor Emerita Angela Davis, CNN political commentator Van Jones and social activist and co-founder of #BlackLivesMatter Alicia Garza are a few of the past speakers whose pictures were projected on stage at the UC Santa Cruz Martin Luther King Jr. Convocation. Benjamin Jealous, former CEO and president of the NAACP, now took to the same stage.
“We come together shoulder to shoulder across every line that divides us in society and we rebel together,” said Jealous in his keynote speech at the 33rd annual event at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium.
About 1,000 people gathered in the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium on Feb. 9 for the event, which included several speeches, a performance from the UCSC jazz band Kadence Keys and the presentation of the ninth annual Tony Hill Award for inspiring community service to Doron Comerchero.
The event, hosted by UCSC, is held every February as part of a celebration of Black History Month. Past years have focused on the Black Lives Matter movement and police violence, and this year’s key theme was inclusion and activism under the new Trump administration.
“At a moment like this it’s important to keep hope alive,” said Reverend Deborah L. Johnson, founding minister of Inner Light Ministries, referencing the current political situation in her speech.
Johnson told the crowd about how she thought Martin Luther King Jr. would react to America’s politics today. Comparing hate to poison, she advocated inclusion over division under the new president.
“From Little Rock to Standing Rock […] From walls dividing Berlin to the new wall to divide our nations,” she said amidst fervent applause. “Any country that spends more on war than uplifting is heading for spiritual bankruptcy.”
In his keynote speech, Jealous, who has been named on the “Top 40 under 40” lists by both TIME Magazine and Fortune Magazine, discussed education and incarceration rates. He focused on the trend in Californian and American politics that leads to the prioritization of prisons over public higher education, perpetuating a dangerous cycle of more prisoners and fewer young people being able to afford university.
In 2014, corrections received 9 percent of the state’s general funding, compared to the 5.2 percent that went to the University of California (UC) and California State University (CSU) systems. In 1970, corrections received 3.7 percent and the UC and CSU systems received 14 percent, according to the UC System Infocenter.
This redirection of funding has resulted in tuition increases at both the UC and CSU and substantially lower per-student spending by the universities, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.
“We are right to be concerned, we are right to feel overwhelmed, we are right to wonder if we can get ourselves out of this,” Jealous said. “We are right to worry.”
People of all colors should be active under a Trump administration, he said, and we must be aware of history repeating itself. “Here in paradise, there are real civil rights issues,” Jealous said, referring to California.
The keynote speech was attended by people of all ages —from high school field trips to Jealous’ 100-year-old grandmother — and received a raucous reception from the audience.
“Ben was an amazing speaker and he brought up a lot of issues that are on our minds […] I found it really impactful and inspiring,” said Lucas Lee, second-year UCSC student and co-director of Kadence Keys.
Lee said he felt the speech spoke to young people, and that it is critical for them to be engaged in activism today.
“[It spoke to young people]more so than any other age bracket, because that’s who will be in charge of society. It’s cliché, but it’s true,” Lee said.
UCSC second-year audience member Ty Goering said the convocation did well to represent the issues left behind in Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy.
“UC Santa Cruz sees people protesting a lot more frequently, even in small numbers or on things that don’t even receive national attention,” Goering said. “I think we are going to see a lot more [activism].”
The night ended with a feeling of optimism for a politically active future, as Jealous mentioned the importance of a “Tea Party of the Left” while encouraging participation on all ends of the political spectrum.
“Because the reality is,” Jealous said, “when the activists take control of a party, you can actually have moments of clarity.”