Scholar-activist electrifies students with talk on Black liberation

Lecture put Black Lives Matter in historical context

Before a captivated room of students and community members at Macalester College November 6, renowned scholar and author Dr. Peniel E. Joseph gave a searing lesson on Black liberation movements in the U.S., touching on everything from slave revolts to Black Lives Matter — all in roughly an hour.

Dr. Joseph’s lecture, “From Civil Rights to Black Lives Matter: African American Political Leadership in the Age of Ferguson, Mass Incarceration and Obama,” was every bit as compact as the title suggests. No seat was left unaccounted for in the 270-seat lecture hall, with students sitting on the floor to listen to the professor’s gripping lecture.

Dr. Peniel E. Joseph surrounded by students from the Kente Summit
Dr. Peniel E. Joseph (center) surrounded by students

The event was hosted by the Macalester College Mahmoud El-Kati Distinguished Lectureship in American Studies, and the Kente Summit, a gathering of collegiate Black men in Minnesota, to discuss pertinent issues and build a sense of community.

Dr. Joseph, a former professor at Tufts University, was recently granted a Barbara Jordan Professorship at Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, a joint appointment with the history department in the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas at Austin. He is often cited as one of the leading voices on the Black Power Movement and Civil Rights Movement and has authored award-winning books, including his most recent Stokely: A Life.

Kicking off his talk with a bit of his personal bio, Joseph proudly credited his Haitian mother for providing him with knowledge of Haitian and African American history, which gave him a sense of identity and equipped him for life as a Black man in a racist society — unlike some of the youth today.

Dr. Peniel E. Joseph was a big hit with students
Dr. Peniel E. Joseph (center) with attendees

“In 2015 we have some young people who are ashamed of being Black because they don’t understand Black history,” Joseph told the audience. “They don’t understand the struggle. If you don’t understand the struggle, this is about the worst place in the world to grow up,” he explained.

The professor, who referred to himself as a “scholar-activist,” said he was pleased by the sight of so many young Black people in the audience, and he punctuated his history lessons with humor and pop culture references that kept the audience lively. He encouraged the young people to know their history and to understand that Black Lives Matter is the latest in the ongoing fight for equality — a fight that was never won.

He also said Black Lives Matter is necessary to galvanize young people much as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) did in the 1960s.

Dr. Peniel E. Joseph and Professor Mahmoud El-Kati
Dr. Peniel E. Joseph and Professor Mahmoud El-Kati

Joseph’s lecture illustrated how institutionalized racism and White supremacy connected to public policy has been passed down through generations. “Dr. King didn’t solve that. Malcolm X didn’t solve that. We keep congratulating ourselves on a story that hasn’t ended. It’s gotten worse for most of the 40 million Black people in the United States,” he stated.

Matthew Ogbeifun, a journalism student at the University of the Minnesota, said he came out for the Kente Summit, and although he had never heard of Dr. Joseph prior to the lecture, he came away “thoroughly impressed.

“I loved how he was able to connect the Civil Rights Movement with the Black Lives Matter movement and show the parallels there,” said Ogbeifun. “As a young millennial…my movement is the Black Lives Matter movement — BLM. So, having him show the historical context really helped me understand [the connection],” he said.

Alex Abraha, a student at Hamline University
Alex Abraha, a student at Hamline University

Alex Abraha, a student at Hamline University and Kente Summit participant, also came away inspired by the lecture, telling the MSR, “I did not know much about the speaker, but when he came and started speaking I was really blown away,” said Abraha with a laugh. “I think a lot of people were…

“He really spoke the truth. He was really able to get everyone excited and rejuvenated about someone else coming in and talking about these issues that affect us on a day-to-day basis on a structural level. Not just like this happened and this happened uncorrelated, but he correlated cause and effect. And it was really good to hear that.”

Abraha also mentioned the comparison between the Civil Rights Movement and Black Lives Matter as something that resonated with him.

Dr. Peniel E. Joseph signing books for attendees
Dr. Peniel E. Joseph signing books

Although he outlined the devastating effects of institutional racism, Dr. Joseph told the crowd that they should not be pessimistic. During the Q&A portion of the event, the professor cited the continual struggle and fight for equality — in spite of historically brutal retaliation and demoralizing resistance — as reason for optimism.

“The optimism is that someone is willing to go through that to try to transform this nation and this society,” he contended.

Professor Mahmoud El-Kati expressed gratitude for the professor’s lecture and work, and praised him for his courage. After the Q&A, a book-signing and reception followed with books given away as supplies lasted.

More information about Dr. Joseph can be found at For more information about the Kente Summit go to

For more information about the El-Kati Lectureship go to

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