Henry Louis Gates Jr. calls for service to bring about justice and equality

Date: April 05, 2018

Henry Louis Gates Jr. connected the founding of Fayetteville State 150 years ago and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. to call for “new moments of hope” in the struggle for justice and equality.

Historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. connected the founding of Fayetteville State University 150 years ago and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. a century later to call for "new moments of hope" in the struggle for justice and equality.

Gates, a professor and the director of the Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research at Harvard University, spoke at FSU's 151st Founders' Day on Thursday. Gates said work is needed to confirm King's belief that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice.

"Too many hands are trying to bend that arc back in another direction," Gates said.

Gates spoke about the seven black men who cobbled together $136 to buy land on Gillespie Street for a school that would become Fayetteville State. He said that was a huge sum of money since the average annual salary for a black person in North Carolina at that time was about $10 a year.

The men saw a need for the education of black people and sought to meet it, Gates said. David A. Bryant, Nelson Carter, George W. Grange Sr., Andrew J. Chesnutt, Mathew Leary Jr., Robert Simmons and Thomas Lomax established what was then known as the Howard School on Nov. 29, 1867.

"Every black child, every American child should commemorate what they did and be taught their names," he said.

The men showed that black lives mattered in their time, Gates said, calling to mind the name of a movement that opposes violence against black people.

"Black lives matter today and black lives will continue to matter in the future," he said.

Gates recalled hearing about King's death and the mourning that followed.

"Then we remembered we still had his words, still had his record of action and the continuing force of his dream," he said.

Everyone should try to make a difference in the world, Gates said, mentioning King's quote that "Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve." King responded to adversity boldly and peacefully, Gates said.

"The question, ladies and gentlemen, is how we respond to evil," he said. "My prayer is that you respond the way Martin Luther King served."

Gates urged those working for justice to seize on common ties between all people and hold firm. He said that's how it was for the seven founders of the school in 1867 and that's how it was for Martin Luther King Jr.

"So it can be again today," he said.

Jerry Woods, a retired sociology professor at Fayetteville State, said young people need to hear Gates' message. The school's history is important, Woods said.

"You can't really talk about American history without talking about black history," he said. "We have to learn to live together."

Chancellor James Anderson talked about visiting the place where King was assassinated. He said anyone who goes has to fight back tears.

"It's the power of the moment," he said. "You relive it standing there."

King left a legacy, as did Fayetteville State's founders, Anderson said. He urged the university's professors and staff members to live up to what the founders started.

"We are links in a chain that they began," he said. "That chain is strong today."

University officials also announced two major gifts totaling $1.5 million and buried a time capsule to be opened in 25 years.

Staff writer Steve DeVane can be reached at sdevane@fayobserver.com or 486-3572.

This article was originally published in the Fayetteville Observer and can be viewed here.

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