Writer and activist Shaun King spoke Wednesday night in the Johnson Chapel at Amherst College to a crowd of approximately 400 students and community members.
According to the event’s Facebook page, the event was hosted by Amherst College Democrats and co-sponsored by the Women’s and Gender Center, the Multicultural Resource Center, the Muslim Student Association, La Causa and Roosevelt at Amherst.
Although King is known for his written pieces for the New York Daily News and The Intercept covering police brutality and race in America, this speech dealt primarily with the theme of humanity.
During his speech, King frequently cited German historian Leopold von Ranke, who he called “the father of the study of history.” According to King, von Ranke challenged the idea that humanity ethically progressed over time, and instead demonstrated that technology and science improved many aspects of human life. He explained that humans go through cycles of using these advances for the benefit of society or to its detriment.
King discussed many of these cycles through history, including slavery and the civil rights movement.
“It was [von Ranke’s] understanding that humanity was getting better and better over time. It was his own historical version of the theory of evolution,” King said. “But as he broke down humanity, what he found was that human beings weren’t getting better, only their gadgets were. When he unfolded humanity over time, he found that humans looked more like a series of great peaks and dramatic valleys. Because if human beings had really gotten better and better, how can we explain slavery? How can we explain the Holocaust?”
The second half of King’s lecture focused on his experience with Black Lives Matter and student activism.
“I used to wonder,” King asked himself, “who would I be, if I were alive in the civil rights movement? Would I be a freedom fighter? Would I be an organizer? Would I be radical? Or, would I stand by and do nothing? Would I march, would I protest, would I sit in? What would I do? I’ve asked this question to some elders in the civil rights movement, and they said, ‘Shaun, I don’t really know who you would be because many of us didn’t know who we would be until we were faced with it.’ What they schooled me on is, they said, ‘Shaun, you don’t really have to go back in time to wonder who you would be. Shaun, you’re in the dip right now. And the truest indication of who you would have been in the civil rights movement is who you are today.’”
King went on to call on the students in the crowd to be the activists of tomorrow, and to follow in his footsteps. Although King had previously worked as an activist, he said that a viral video depicting the death of Eric Garner at the hands of the New York Police Department spurred him to re-engage with his activist past. King started by sharing the video online in hopes that, “one of my Twitter followers would know what to do next.” Many of King’s followers did engage with him on the subject and he used the experience as a way to show young people that online activism can help lead to real change, even if it is only a first step.
After those series of tweets, King became a central figure in the Black Lives Matter movement to bring about justice for African Americans killed by the police. In 2014, King entered the national spotlight for his tweets covering the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. He criticized the Ferguson police department and accused them of covering up the facts about Brown’s death.
Shaun King has an active Twitter account, speaking out against and challenging political actions. In November of 2017, Donald Trump tweeted accusing LaVar Ball of being “very ungrateful” that he was able to get Ball’s son and two other basketball players out of a Chinese prison for a shoplifting charge. In response to Trump’s tweet, King said “Ungrateful is the new n*****.” King’s tweet was retweeted over 2,000 times.
He said that when he spoke to the families of police shooting victims, he used to “naively” promise them that their lost loved ones would know justice. The consistent failure to win in court against accused police officers, or to even reach a trial, motivated King to change his tactics back to journalism, which he studied at Morehouse College as an undergraduate. King was hired by the Daily Kos in 2014 and the New York Daily News in 2015 to write about social justice. In September of 2017, King joined The Intercept, the outlet originally founded to report on Edward Snowden’s 2014 revelations about the National Security Agency. King said Wednesday that he joined The Intercept because he loved investigative journalism and because daily news and opinion writing felt like a grind.
In addition to writing, King regularly speaks at universities across the country. Wednesday was his first visit to the Five College area and his last speech of the year. A former pastor, King said he plans to spend the holidays with his family to deal with the stress caused by his work.
William Keve can be reached at [email protected]