Katie Smyth


Martin Luther Who?

On 13th November 1967, Newcastle University awarded Dr Martin Luther King an honorary degree, the only UK University to do so in his lifetime. On accepting this award, Dr King made what was to be his final public speech outside of the US before his assassination in April 1968. In a moving address, he called for us to join him in the ongoing struggle against war, poverty and racism.

To commemorate Dr King’s honorary degree, there will be year round celebrations know as Freedom City 2017 which will bring together international artists, musicians, filmmakers, academics and community groups to inspire a new generation to contribute towards tackling the issues that Dr King spoke of in his acceptance speech.

In light of these celebrations, on Saturday 18th February Newcastle University Students’ Union and the International Development Society welcomed over 100 guests and a range of speakers to question where we are today regarding civil rights, 50 years on from Martin Luther King receiving his honorary degree here at Newcastle.

The conference was opened by Chi Onwurah MP, patron of Freedom City 2017, who introduced the importance of engaging with the themes of Dr King’s speech by talking of her own passions for not only Newcastle, but our society in general. Following Chi’s introduction, Dr Kehinde Andrews broadened the focus by comparing Martin Luther King with Malcolm X, demonstrating how the importance of both men was intertwined with the other. Professor David Bailin then gave a personal account of volunteering he took part in during Freedom Summer 1964 for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Dr Megan Armstrong, of Newcastle University, was our final speaker before lunch and examined how we in the Western world tend to “other” those that are different to us, causing division and reinforcing negative stereotypes.

A series of workshops broke the day up perfectly and allowed a space for participants to engage more directly. The Islamic Diversity Centre used their hour to focus on Islam’s solution to racism. We enjoyed a fantastic session from our very own Racial Equality Officer Safiya Robinson who looked at the concept of privilege, and there was also a session delivered by Journey to Justice, examining what social justice is and how we can look to achieve it. The final two speakers of the programme connected the morning’s sessions on race and identity by applying this to refugees. Dr Silvia Pasquetti drew on her own research to examine how refugees are marginalised in Italy, before the final speaker, Muzoon Al-Mellehan, dubbed the “Malala of Syria”, gave an inspiring account of her own story in which she conveyed an incredible passion for education and demonstrated how refugees were so often misrepresented.

The open questions and panel and audience debate were probably the most challenging part of the day. Some very poignant topics were discussed, including institutional racism, whilst also debating where we are now in terms of tackling some of the issues that Dr King raised 50 years ago. There is no doubt that passions and tensions were high when discussing these topics and there was a definite shift in atmosphere during the debates. However, if these conversations didn’t take place, we’d all go home with a representation of our views only, not learning, but simply partaking. I definitely think we realised we’ve an awful long way to go in terms of tackling the themes of war, poverty and racism. However, if we don’t bring people together to discuss these issues, how will we even start to tackle them?

All in all, we were absolutely delighted with how the conference went. One of the main aims of this conference was to encourage people to think and act with more consideration. Here’s a snippet of some of the answers to a question we asked: Have we inspired you to make positive change?

  • Yes-I will re-evaluate my teaching methods as a result of this.
  • I intend to connect with people with influence and companies and foundations with a common goal, a better future for everyone.
  • Definitely. I’m more interested in civil rights and plan to study the topic even deeper and why not join a campaign or charity in my country (France).
  • You have changed my view on many topics.
  • Yes. I feel more inspired now. What has made me feel more inspired has been when the situation relates to real life, rather than just talking in ‘theory’.
  • Yes, I will volunteer at the Star and Shadow cinema conversation group for asylum seekers and refugees.

A huge congratulations to all those involved on the day, in particular the International Development Society for all their efforts in organising the conference and the coordination on the day.


Brdmajec Mfekhjkk
4:40pm on 9 Jun 18 1
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