Current Events

It has been a red-letter season of campus speakers.

• Patricia Williams, a professor of constitutional law at Columbia University, gave the address for the College’s annual tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. on January 25. Though a writer of the tongue-in-cheek “Diary of a Mad Law Professor” for The Nation magazine, Williams offered a sobering assessment of the state of race relations around the globe. Less a speech than a brilliantly written essay read aloud, Williams’ presentation was the kind of courageous statement that in later years will be held up as an example of insight beyond its occasion.

• On February 10, film producer Keith Beauchamp screened his documentary about the brutal murder of Emmett Till, a Chicago teen who made the mistake of whistling at a white woman in Mississippi in 1955. Beauchamp worked for nine years to get to the truth of Emmett’s death and discovered that many more than the two men who went on trial for his killing (and were acquitted by an all-white, all-male jury) were involved in the conspiracy to teach Emmett a lesson. His research persuaded the Justice Department to reopen the Till case.

The documentary is a powerful illustration of how race affected the judicial system across the South. Emmett Till has gotten rather lost in the chronology of marches, protests, boycotts, and civil disobedience that carried the civil rights movement forward in the mid-1960s. But for anyone who wondered why Martin Luther King Jr. chose the hot and sticky day of August 28 for the 1963 March on Washington, the date marked the eighth anniversary of Emmett Till’s murder.

• In another event sponsored by the Leadership Center, James Blight and Janet Lang, professors from the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University, came to campus February 17 to show and discuss The Fog of War. Errol Morris’s Academy Award-winning 2003 documentary is an intense conversation with former secretary of defense Robert F. McNamara, who helped the Kennedy brothers successfully resolve the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, then oversaw the disastrous U.S. intervention in Vietnam. It is also an unprecedented oral history, though the only perspective is that of McNamara.

Blight and Lang’s discussion of McNamara’s role as a leader and a follower, a man who knew how misguided were Lyndon Johnson’s failed policies in Vietnam, yet willingly took the blame for them, was based on more than 20 years’ acquaintance with McNamara. To further the work of their program at Brown, which seeks to understand the forces behind conflict, Blight and Lang organized two conferences that brought former enemies together to understand what had happened in these tense situations: one with McNamara and Castro, another with McNamara and Vietnamese guerrilla and political leaders. These conferences, as well as their diplomatic handling of McNamara, brought in the two professors as consultants to the film.

Moravian students viewed Keith Beauchamp’s gripping documentary about the murder of Emmett Till during Black History Month.