Is Newcastle the King of tokenism?

News editor Em Richardson examines the University's relationship to the civil rights icon.

Em Richardson
12th November 2019
Image: Pngimg
In 1967, Newcastle University awarded Dr Martin Luther King an honorary degree, becoming the only UK university to grant King such an honour during his lifetime.

There’s no denying that the university showed a progressive attitude at this time, when many others still condemned the Civil Rights movement. There’s also no doubt that Dr King’s visit to the university, where he personally accepted the degree, and delivered a rousing speech on the struggle for racial equality in the US, is a proud moment in Newcastle University’s history. His visit deserves to be commemorated.
However, the university has perhaps gone too far in its quest to ensure no one forgets Dr King’s visit. A large statue of Dr King is situated on campus, and the Students' Union’s bar is named Luther’s.
On a deeper level, it seems the university could be accused both of ‘window-dressing’, and of exploiting the Luther King connection.
At the end of the day, Dr King visited Newcastle University only once, 52 years ago. He never had a long-standing relationship with the university, yet they continue to use his name and image.

Only around 14% of Newcastle University students are BAME, which falls below the national average

With regards to allegations of ‘window-dressing’, a cynic might suggest that the university publicises their connection with Dr King and the civil rights movement as a way of appealing to BAME students, and depicting themselves as champions of racial equality.
There’s only one issue with this view: only around 14% of students at Newcastle are BAME. This falls well below the national average of around 20%.
It would seem that, in 2019, the uni needs to do more to make BAME students feel welcomed than simply publicising a brief connection to Dr King, made before many Newcastle student’s parents, never mind the students themselves, were born.
When asked to comment on whether Newcastle exploits its relationship with Dr King, Welfare and Equality Officer Sara Elkhawad said: ‘Martin Luther King is an incredible figure and the activism work he achieved during his lifetime and the legacy he left after his death will always be commemorated and remembered, and I'm glad Newcastle recognises his work…but I think his legacy has been excessively celebrated by the University and has covered up some of the racial issues and injustices that both exist systematically and in the attitudes of some of our students… And it’s only this academic year that the university has started to make a real commitment in tackling those racial injustices.
"Martin Luther King and African American activism was something I really wanted to move away from during my Black History Month campaign, 'Black is Gold'. It's important to recognise that there is not one homogenous black history or life experience."

Featured Image: Newcastle University

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