University of Vermont

University Communications

MLK Speaker Challenges Crowd to Dream, Listen and Act in the King Tradition

Marc Lamont Hill
Dr. Marc Lamont Hill spoke to an audience gathered in Ira Allen Chapel on Jan. 23. “‘Who do you want to be?’ This is the question we must ask ourselves every day.” (Photo: Sally McCay)

Leading intellectual and activist Marc Lamont Hill dared the large crowd he addressed in Ira Allen Chapel to imagine a radical freedom dream and then laid out a path to achieve it in the tradition of Martin Luther King, Jr. Given the current state of affairs in America, the need to engage in the legacy of the man he came to honor has never been greater, he said.

Hill, the Steven Charles Professor of Media, Cities and Solutions at Temple University, gave his remarks on Jan. 23 during a keynote address as part of UVM’s weeklong Martin Luther King, Jr., Celebration, sponsored by President Tom Sullivan, the Department of Student Life and the Office of the Vice President for Human Resources, Diversity and Multicultural Affairs. 

“For me, the opportunity to be here is animated by a desire to not just talk about Martin Luther King, Jr., but to resituate him within the radical tradition,” said Hill, an award-winning author and political commentator on CNN, BET and Fox News. “And at a moment where radical thought, radical vision, radical action, radical politics, are being marginalized, where the right has become the center, it's especially important to engage the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.”

Students in Ira Allen Chapel

Hill, who has held faculty positions at Columbia University and Morehouse College, proceeded to paint a painful picture of America’s most marginalized citizens, many of whom lack quality education, food and jobs that pay a livable wage. These disadvantages have contributed to one in every 100 U.S. adults living behind bars, he said.

“I submit to you, University of Vermont, that we’re in a dark moment,” said Hill. “The richest empire in human history, and so many of our babies go to bed hungry every single night. War has become, or remains, rather, our primary instrument of foreign policy. The public good is being trumped by private interest and private money. Corporations are the new governments. We are emptying the resources of schools, literally dismantling public education at the same time that we are investing unprecedented levels of money into mass incarceration.”

It was during a similarly dark time that King once said, “only when it is darkest can we see the stars,” said Hill, adding that a radical dream must be accompanied by radical listening. King, he explained, listened to the plight of poor people in churches, activists in Chicago fighting for better working conditions, and antiwar protestors trying to end the war in Vietnam before taking action.

“To really have an audacious freedom dream, we also have to listen to one another,” said Hill, author of four books including the highly acclaimed Beats, Rhymes, and Classroom Life: Hip-Hop Pedagogy and the Politics of Identity. “When I say radical listening, I mean understanding the story, the perspective, the world view, the ways of navigating the world, the habits of mind and body of other traditions, of other appearances, of other religious faiths, of gender preferences.”

Marc Lamont Hill

Named one of the top 100 most influential black leaders by Ebony Magazine, Hill spoke passionately about executing the final phase of King’s plan for freedom: radical action. “The biggest problem in the world today is that there are too many people who don't do anything. In King's tradition, it is not enough to analyze this world. We must wed analysis to action, because this is not a hypothetical. This is not a thought experiment. There are real lives at stake. There are real people dying.”

Focusing on local issues, Hill said, can have a national impact. “King said when dogs bite us in Birmingham, we bleed everywhere,” said Hill, founding board member of My5th, a non-profit devoted to educating youth about their legal rights and responsibilities. “Oh, they're biting us, but we must recognize and witness the collective pain.”

Hill cautioned that pursuing a radical dream like King’s can be a lonely pursuit. “In the King tradition, you will find yourself alone. The radical tradition doesn’t promote friend-building. We all love King now, because in death, we have stripped him of his teeth, but in life, King was an outcast.” 

Hill concluded by saying that "we must fight for freedom. We must dream of the world that is not yet. And we cannot fight until some of us are free. No, we must fight until all of us, each and every one, is free.”