MLK Day Speakers Urge Action for Change

Clockwise from top left: Derecka Purnell, Payton Head, Faith Dixon, and Wess Philome

In a time when voting rights continue to be debated, Concordia College hosted a day of events to honor the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

This year’s theme was “Daring to Dream: The Radical Imagination of a New Generation.” It called upon people to not only acknowledge the work King did for reform but also to act on what more needs to be done.

The keynote speakers were Payton Head and Derecka Purnell. They spoke via Zoom.

Head was the student body president at the University of Missouri (Mizzou) during the 2014 unrest in nearby Ferguson after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer. Head detailed the conversations and protests he helped lead to address systemic injustices on campus. In the process, the system president and chancellor resigned.

The demonstrations inspired similar ones at colleges and universities across the country. Head’s message to students was to believe in themselves and know the power of communication.

“This was a symbolic win in so many ways for students to understand that they have incredible power moving forward,” Head said. “There was still so much more to be done, not just a resignation, but it was a way in which to encourage students to continue to use their voices to fight for the things they want and need to be on campus in order to create a better society for us all.”

Purnell is a human rights lawyer, organizer, and author. She challenged the audience not to focus solely on King’s kind heart and moving speeches. She urged them to learn more about his demands to change economic injustice, economic violence, capitalism, and militarism.

“We’re up against a system of weird actors who were able to imagine tools of harm and tools of oppression,” Purnell said. “That means that we need to imagine more radically, more boldly, and then fight to make our imaginations a reality, too.”

Purnell called for people to organize and pointed to recent strikes at large corporations as evidence of change.

Fargo-Moorhead community activists Faith Dixon and Wess Philome joined Purnell and Head for a panel discussion to answer the audience’s questions on ways to best live out King’s vision.

The day’s events included a chapel service and breakout sessions for in-depth discussions on the history of oppression and ways to overcome adversity.

Purnell’s book, “Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the Pursuit of Freedom,” is available at the Concordia library.