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Annual MLK Debate Sparks Deep Reflection

As part of its lengthy program of events for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Bates College hosts its annual Rev. Dr. Benjamin Mays Debate comprised of students from its own debate team and those from Morehouse College, the alma mater of King himself. The debate connects the two institutions together through Mays – an advisor to King and an instrumental figure in the American Civil Rights movement as a whole – who graduated from Bates in 1920 and took on the role as President of Morehouse College in 1940.

Every year, the motions of the debate are centered on questions that evoke the themes of Mays’ work. This year, debaters were asked to either support or object a particularly culturally germaine claim: “Social movements should propose policies that radically reimagine society rather than prioritizing incremental change.”

Affirming this claim were Lillian Chang ’20 and Daniel Edwards ’21, of Bates and Morehouse, respectively. “The moral arc of the universe is long,” started Edwards. “But it has wholly diverged from the path of the poor, the workers of this country, black America, the LGBT community, and those who occupy the margins of society.” Attempts at reform rather than complete structural overhaul, argued Edwards, would not satisfy the dire social needs of oppressed communities.

“We believe that in a radically unequal world, that we need to be radical in our response; and that the incrementalism that the opposing team is going to advocate for is an abdication of each and every one of our duty to speak truth to power and uphold the basic protections that are fellow men and women are owed in today’s society.” Chang and Edwards advocated for policies that would disturb the sociopolitical status quo; such as abolishing prisons and the police, Medicare for all, and an end to housing and educational discrimination.

On the opposing team sat Samuel Melcher ‘21 of Bates and Caleb Strickland ‘23 of Morehouse. “On opposition, we provide to you a different perspective,” Melcher began. “We use the quote of MLK, when he famously said: ‘If you cannot fly, then run. If you cannot run, then walk. And if you cannot walk, then crawl.’” Melcher remarked that he understood, on a basic level, the impulse toward radicalism in a radically unfair society, but stressed the importance of allies in social change. “It only appears natural to want to address issues of extreme injustice with extreme solutions. But on opposition, we think that ultimately if we’re not protecting those who are involved in our movements, then we’re doing our job, first and foremost… We think it is ultimately the case that we need concrete goals that you can propose and allow for people on the margins to benefit from.”

In rebutting the opposition’s claims, Chang emphasized the importance of marginalized communities taking efforts into their own hands at a time when mainstream institutions appear to lack efficacy. “It took our illustrious government months to decide whether to ban just fruit flavored vape pods or just mint. This is an example of how ineffective politics can be… If we believe that incremental change needs to happen, and that it needs to happen in an additive effect such that we are actually going to see the effects of it, we are going to be waiting forever.”

Conversely, Strickland emphasized the necessity of pragmatism in effecting social change. Addressing Chang’s quip about vaping regulations, Strickland remarked that “We see [regarding] something as micro as just a Juul pod, our government moves slow. So, imagine how slow an already divided government on concepts such as the abolishment of the police… We need to make solutions that are most likely to be accepted by those already in power.”

While the debate did not end with any formal resolution on the issue, both participants from Morehouse expressed pleasure in their experience at Bates. Strickland, who is only in his first year at Morehouse, expressed a desire to return to campus. “We actually do a domestic exchange with [Bates]. I’m actually now considering coming up here for a semester because the students have been really awesome.” Edwards, who has been debating since middle school, remarked that his experience at Bates has “been cold, but the people are incredibly warm.”