Benedictine College Observes MLK Day With Ferguson Panel and Prayer

Benedictine Observes MLK Day With Ferguson Panel and Prayer

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

ATCHISON, Kan. – Monday, January 19, marked the national observance of Martin Luther King Day and Benedictine College observed the day with a panel and prayer.

A special group of panelists close to the events that unfolded in Ferguson, Missouri, last summer spoke in O’Malley-McAllister Auditorium to a packed house of students, faculty and people from the Atchison community. Later that evening, singing groups from the college joined an ecumenical prayer service in Atchison.

The panel included John Gaskin III, a Benedictine senior from the St. Louis area who provided frequent commentary regarding the events surrounding the shooting of Michael Brown, including more than 90 appearances on CNN’s Situation Room. John's mother, Angela Gaskin, who heads a local NAACP Ferguson Task Force, and John’s grandmother, Esther Haywood, who has been a civil rights advocate for more than 50 years and marched with Dr. King in the 1960s, were also part of the panel. Darryl Jones, a 1968 graduate of Benedictine College who grew up in the St. Louis area, was the final panelist and reflected on his exposure to racism as a young black man in the 1960s and beyond.

Benedictine College President Stephen D. Minnis introduced the group, quoting from the famous speech by Robert Kennedy following the assassination of Dr. King, “What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness, but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice towards those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.”

Dr. John Settich, chair of the Political Science Department, served as moderator and opened the discussion with a video of Dr. King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. He asked Mrs. Haywood to tell the audience about her direct experience with Dr. King and the history of the Civil Rights Movement.

“The night before he died, I was in the front row of that church when he made his last speech,” she said. “But history is more than a collection of famous people and dates. Without question, the Montgomery Bus Boycott needed a Rosa Parks to take her legendary stand, but it also depended on the thousands of individuals making the courageous decision morning after morning to risk their jobs, their health and safety, to bring a measure of justice to the Jim Crow South. Each of these participants deserves our recognition.”

Angela Gaskin spoke about the work of the NAACP Ferguson Task Force and some of the conclusions it reached. She said they at first looked for what quick action could be taken to engage the public in such a complex issue, but they went on to determine the areas of greatest concern that were underlying the shooting. She named economic matters and the decision of the Task Force to join with existing nonprofit organizations working in that area, rather than try to build something new. She mentioned advocacy and a discussion of what kind of legislation should be supported, and she talked about empowerment.

“There were so many things…that we realized, really, were causing some of the unrest and the despair that was in that community,” she said. “So, from our Ferguson Task Force we identified that citizens were in great need of being empowered. We found that there were many people who were not registered, or if they were registered, they weren’t voting. They weren’t finding their way to the political process so that they could have some type of impact on who was making rules for the city government.”

John Gaskin, who had dealt extensively with the media over the past six months in relation to Ferguson, talked about how much the media influences public perceptions and how media often gets it wrong. Being from the area, he and his family knew the local police chief and others involved with the incident and knew they had been mischaracterized by the media, both as individuals and in intent. He said the situation in Ferguson became national news not because a black man was shot by a white man, but because two reporters were arrested on the scene.

“When those two reporters (from the Washington Post and the Huffington Post) got roughed around and knocked in the head, and there was a little camera recording it all,” he said. “Within 2 seconds it was all over Youtube and all over Twitter and then the media trucks started rolling in.”

He said that was when the entire nation and the rest of the world took notice and felt that something serious was happening because the government was messing with the press.

“Everyone asks how we have all these pictures from the Civil Rights Movement and it’s the press,” John said. “They were all taken by Time-Life. That’s where we get all this footage that makes you cry. It’s from the press. Much of what you’re seeing on television is true, however it can be exaggerated,” he said. “The angles of the cameras, the quotes they use.”

Jones said at first he didn’t really care about racism or segregation because he didn’t need or want to go to any of the places from which he was excluded. When he travelled to Memphis, he began to realize how bad things had become.

“Once I became aware that the doors were closed, I wanted them open,” he said. “When I first became aware of Dr. King and first saw him, I realized there was something bigger than the world I lived in. I became committed to getting the things that I deserved, the education I deserved, the opportunities that I deserved, and I got past a lot of things before I ever realized they were barriers. And then I was blessed to end up in Atchison, Kansas, where I found out you can live in a world that is inclusive. I had no idea that when I came here (Benedictine College) that I would fit in and it would change the rest of my life. I came here and it got brighter and brighter for me, and then I went back to St. Louis to open doors.”

The panelists were all appreciative of the forum offered by Benedictine College and of the attention from the hundreds of students who took the time to listen to them. Moving forward, they said Benedictine College students should focus on having continued discussions like this, get involved in public service, embrace diversity and be willing to talk about important issues.

“A well-rounded education should provide exposure to realities that do exist beyond 1020 North Second Street,” Gaskin concluded.

Students, faculty and staff also participated in the annual Atchison Community Martin Luther King Day March and Ecumenical Prayer Service later that evening. That event included a gathering in front of City Hall, followed by a march to the Atchison United Methodist Church. The Benedictine College Women’s Ensemble and the St. Benedict’s Parish Choir were be among those performing at the service.

“Social justice issues are clearly important to Benedictine College students,” said Dr. Amy Posey, associate professor and chair of the Department of Psychological Sciences at Benedictine and co-chair of the faculty MLK Day Committee. “We hope the annual Atchison Community March from City Hall and the ecumenical prayer service become traditional parts of a BC student’s college experience,” Posey said.

Founded in 1858, Benedictine College is a Catholic, Benedictine, residential, liberal arts college located on the bluffs above the Missouri River in Atchison, Kansas. The school is proud to have been named one of America’s Best Colleges by U.S. News & World Report as well as one of the top 20 Catholic colleges in the nation by First Things magazine and the Newman Guide.  It prides itself on outstanding academics, extraordinary faith life, strong athletic programs, and an exceptional sense of community and belonging. It has a mission to educate men and women within a community of faith and scholarship.