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January 29, 2001

NAACP's Mfume addresses overflow crowd at Martin Luther King Jr. Convocation

By Louise Donahue

Messages of hope were tempered by an awareness of the societal challenges that remain in the United States, as UCSC marked its annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Convocation on Wednesday (January 24).

Kweisi Mfume, at the Civic Auditorium, and Angela Davis, addressing young students at the afternoon outreach event. Photos: UCSC Photo Services
Convocation events began with an afternoon session led by Angela Davis, professor of the history of consciousness, and were capped with a speech by NAACP President Kweisi Mfume at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium.

Speaking to an overflow crowd, Mfume reminded his audience that Martin Luther King Jr. faced fierce opposition during his lifetime and that increased opportunities for minorities came only after a long and difficult struggle. "Colin Powell is here today because of the efforts of nameless and faceless Americans to do away with discrimination," he said. Addressing the younger members of the audience, he said, "They laid down and made their bodies bridges that you might get to the university and be somebody."

The former U.S. congressman from Maryland urged his audience to use the occasion of the King convocation to recommit to the fallen civil rights leader's dream. "While some of our problems are ...unique, none of them has to be permanent."

Mfume also addressed the disputed presidential election process in Florida, saying the NAACP has joined several other organizations in a voting rights lawsuit against Florida officials.

"Florida almost gave itself away before the election, but some of us, including me, didn't pick up on it," Mfume said. In the days leading up to the election, he said, Florida voters were called by people claiming to represent the NAACP and urging a vote for then-Texas governor George W. Bush. The NAACP does not endorse candidates. By noon on election day, the NAACP had received 800 complaints from Floridians saying they had been hampered or blocked in their attempts to vote. Mfume said repeated appeals for help to the U.S. Justice Department brought little response.

Compounding the problem, Mfume said, was the lack of interest by major American media, though he praised C-Span, the BBC, and other international news outlets for covering the story.

Davis also touched on what she called "the voting fiasco" during the afternoon program at Cowell College, geared for students visiting from area middle schools, high schools, and community colleges. She offered a historical perspective on the election, noting a document she had come across, "Election Day in Florida, 1920." In that election, the first after the constitutional amendment allowing women to vote was approved, minorities were also discouraged from voting.

Davis, however, is optimistic. "I would say we have to believe it is possible to change society."

The woman who was a major figure in the turbulent political world of the 1960s told the students there were many different approaches to making the world better. "You don't have to be the in-our-face radical to bring about change."

Prison reform is a major area of concern for Davis. She said she likes the term "prison-industrial complex" because it gets people thinking about the relationship of the "punishment industry" to the erosion of education and health care, instead of stirring an emotional reaction over crime.

As Mfume did later, Davis encouraged her young audience to avoid elitism and take a broad view of education, valuing the knowledge those who have not attended college have acquired. She cited efforts to discourage the use of Spanish as one way young people are "encouraged to forget about the people they left behind."

"The only reason we are all gathered here today is because there were people before us who fought, some of whom gave their lives."

Davis's appearance struck a chord with many in the audience, as students and adults lined up for autographs and photos with her. The outreach event was sponsored by the UCSC Educational Partnership Center, Early Academic Outreach Program, and Transfer Partnership Program.

Following her appearance on campus, the students and Davis went to the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, where Davis served as emcee for the main convocation program featuring Mfume.

Mfume's speech will be broadcast on KUSP-Radio (88.9 FM) from 6 to 7 p.m. on Sunday, February 4.

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