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The Garment Shredders

Celebrating Martin Luther King Day at the University of Michigan.

8:45 AM, Jan 22, 2003 • By BETH HENARY
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Ann Arbor

THE MENTION of President Bush's name received a predictable chorus of boos in the Chemistry Building here Monday as affirmative action supporters rallied in the name of Martin Luther King. Bush is one of the "racists and segregationists who want to turn back the clock" on Brown v. Board of Education by opposing affirmative action, rally organizer Shanta Driver told several hundred high school and university students. Last week, the administration filed a Supreme Court brief denouncing the University of Michigan's race-based law school and undergraduate admissions policies.

"I'm very distressed that the president has tried to play politics and divide people on this important issue," added Michigan senator Debbie Stabenow, who promised to do everything possible to "stop [this] erosion of civil rights."

A march for affirmative action followed by a rally was but a small part of the 16th annual University of Michigan Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium. Students and community members attended a host of honorary lectures and forums put on by individual departments. There were activists and diversity experts, even a performance by the Business and Finance Diversity Choir.

Since its inception, the MLK Symposium at Michigan has expanded from just the traditional holiday to a 44-day-long production (this year it began on January 6 and runs through February 18). A 35-member planning committee approves events and awards funds to student groups wanting to commemorate King. Although the committee prescribes a yearly theme--this year's was Mahatma Gandhi's famous quote, "We must be the change we wish to see in the world"--no event is turned down. "MLK meant a lot of things to different people, so [the committee] doesn't get involved in content," says Dr. John Matlock, associate vice-provost and director of the Office of Academic Multicultural Initiatives, which oversees the symposium.

Affirmative action and racial diversity have been perennial themes at the symposium. Speakers and presenters this year almost uniformly took positive views of these policies, exhibiting what Boston University anthropologist Peter Wood identifies as a misunderstanding of King's "single garment of destiny" metaphor.

In "Letter from Birmingham Jail," King wrote: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny." King's metaphor presents a problem, Wood writes in his new book "Diversity: The Invention of a Concept," for those who want to remember King yet ignore his message of unity. "For some, the solution has been to reinterpret it by emphasizing the separateness of the threads rather than the forceful interweave."

This more current interpretation of the single garment of destiny was on display during Monday's observance of MLK Day. Before the keynote speech, university president Mary Sue Coleman affirmed the school's commitment to racial diversity.

"We cannot afford to lose [the cases before the Supreme Court]," she said to a standing ovation. Coleman said she is pleased that President Bush supports diversity in higher education, but disapproves of his characterizing Michigan's admissions process as quotas.

Headliner Grace Lee Boggs, a veteran of numerous social movements and founder of the urban renewal program Detroit Summer, praised the university for its "courage" in using race-based admissions. In a speech primarily focused on good citizenship, Boggs urged the audience to "embrace the responsibilities of global citizenship and say no to the war in Iraq." The September 11 attack, she said, was a "wake-up call" for us to more closely scrutinize problems with Western Civilization.

Asian-studies professor Scott Kurashige commended Boggs as one who "introduces us to an MLK who is not frozen in time," but who evolves to meet the demands of new struggles.

AT HIGH NOON on MLK Day, affirmative-action supporters assembled at a busy campus corner and marched through the streets for nearly an hour in frigid temperatures. Antiwar rhetoric peppered their stock cry, "Affirmative action is the way, long live the fight of MLK!" Organized by the "Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action and Integration and Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary" (mercifully abbreviated to BAMN), the march attracted several hundred students. Busloads of Detroit-area high school students added manpower and the Cass Technical High School band provided the marching tunes. A chaperone for students from Renaissance High said her school alone sent three busses, and a Renaissance senior reported that some teachers give extra credit to students who demonstrate. As the march was about to get underway, one young girl proudly waved her sign in front of me: "SAVE BROW v. BOARD " [Sic.]