Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

NPR's Norris describes her personal experience with quiet activism

National Public Radio reporter Michele Norris told hundreds gathered Monday to honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. that in this time of renewed protest — evidenced by the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement — she also appreciates the effectiveness of quiet activism.

National Public Radio reporter Michele Norris delivers the keynote address for the 26th annual MLK Symposium. (Photo by Scott Soderberg, U-M Photo Services)  

Delivering the keynote address for the 26th annual MLK Symposium at Hill Auditorium, Norris said she first considered the approach while researching her family's history for her recent book "The Grace of Silence: A Memoir."

"I grew up in the 1970s and I thought that activism looked and sounded a certain way. I thought it had a big Afro or a dashiki. I thought it put its fist in the air," she said.

But her own family's story, before Norris' birth and as she grew up in Minneapolis, included her postal worker father getting up 15 minutes early to shovel the snow, to demonstrate to his all-white neighbors how he cared for his property.

"I realized I was raised by a man and surrounded by a generation of men that had so many reasons to be angry at the world, and they decided not to be," Norris said. "For a lot of them it was a decision that to shove themselves forward and shove the country forward they were not going to reach for anger and instead reach for ambition."


Read the full text of President Mary Sue Coleman's remarks opening the MLK Symposium at Hill Auditorium.

Check out photo highlights of other MLK-related activities.

President Mary Sue Coleman opened the program recalling historic contributions to the civil rights struggle of two U-M degree holders:

• Lyman Johnson, who sued to be admitted to the University of Kentucky five years before the Brown v. Board of Education ruling that ordered all of the nation's schools to be integrated.

• Walter Bergman, a white man severely beaten in 1961 while joining the Freedom Riders as they boarded southbound buses seeking to integrate interstate public facilities. Years later, he forced the FBI to admit it knew of the attacks in advance.

Coleman said a spirit of activism continues at U-M.

"Thousands of students dedicate themselves to hundreds of organizations, with the collective purpose of making our world more equitable, better educated, healthier, safer and sustainable," she said. "Whether tweeting, marching, petitioning or teaching, today's students continue a legacy of activism that is a hallmark of Michigan."

The president recognized two alumni and a faculty member who contributed to the King memorial: alumnus Edward Jackson, executive architect for the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Foundation; alumnus James Chaffers, professor emeritus of architecture and a senior design juror for the project; and Jon Lockard, a faculty member in the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies, who served as artistic consultant.

Lester Monts, senior vice provost for academic affairs, brought to the stage an award recently presented to U-M on behalf of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Committee by Jackson, its executive architect. A small bronze replica of the monument, it is inscribed, “University of Michigan, in recognition of faculty and alumni participation in the creation of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial."

"This very attractive award brings great satisfaction to all of us at the University of Michigan, knowing that our faculty and alumni were involved in the design and creation of this memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. The monument in our nation’s capital is now a permanent part of American history, and because of the involvement of Edward Jackson, Jon Lockhard, and James Chaffers, the University of Michigan’s contribution will always be associated with its creation," Monts said.

The award will be displayed at the Office of Academic Multicultural Initiatives this week, at the Michigan Union in following weeks, and later this term at a central location on North Campus.

Norris said that when first researching her book, she intended to write about how Americans talk and think about race. "What I got was an earful of stories from elders in my family talking about things they never shared before. It was this historic indigestion," she said.

She said she was surprised to learn that in the late 1940s and early '50s her proud grandmother earned money for a time traveling the Midwest conducting pancake-cooking demonstrations as Aunt Jemima. While her grandmother was required to dress in character, Norris said, "She spoke as an educated woman because she was an educated women. It was in her own way a form of activism."

She also found that her father once was jailed for scuffling with a policeman after leaving the Navy, in 1946 in his native Birmingham, Ala., as the officer sought to keep him from attending a class on the Constitution. A law had been passed to require knowledge of the document, on demand, if a black man sought to register to vote.

Norris said she hoped her book would start a conversation about race. She is trying to continue the discussion on her website through a feature called the Race Card Project, which asks the public to write in six words their thoughts on race. Submissions in the past year have included, "Black wears me wherever I go," "But I voted for Barack Obama," and "Pay no attention to my packaging."

"The conversation is not over; there is much work to," she said. The unfinished look of the MLK Memorial in Washington, D.C., symbolizes the unresolved nature of civil rights struggles, she said.

Monts praised the MLK Planning Committee and the Office of Academic Multicultural Initiatives for its work to plan the monthlong MLK Symposium, one of the most prominent in the country. "Dr. King was one of the quintessential activists of the 20th century. We can certainly build on the past to invigorate the new generation of activism today," he said.

Joseph Sutka of Wyandotte said he and his wife attended the program to celebrate MLK Day. "My grandmother's generation was very quiet there were a lot of things they kept private about racism. I really did relate to a lot of what she said."

"In my own life I've been so busy and I don't have the time to do activism. I like that she said that it doesn't have to be protesting, it can be something smaller; that doing well in school, or doing more than people expect you to do is a kind of activism," said Rianna Johnson-Levy of Ann Arbor, a Community High School junior.