MLK Day Discussion Panel
By: Drue Watkins
From 2:30 – 3:30 p.m., Jan. 21, in the CETES Conference Center, Cameron University celebrated Martin Luther King (MLK) Day by hosting a Panel Discussion featuring American attorney—and CNN political analyst—Bakari Sellers as the Keynote Speaker.
Sellers represented South Carolina’s 90th district in the lower house of the state legislature from 2006 to 2014, becoming the youngest African-American politician in the United States at age 22.
The panel—alongside Sellers—consisted of representatives from both Lawton Public Schools (LPS) and Cameron University, with the general discussions revolving around race relations in the country, the state of education in Lawton and Oklahoma, improving children’s lives through active parenting, the American justice system and the importance of MLK Day.
Free and open to the public, the organizers of the event encouraged attendees to write down questions prior to the start of the discussion—questions that would be answered all throughout the hour-long discourse.
Junior English Education major Djimon Jones sat with the panel, bringing a student’s perspective to the questions asked.
During the dialogue on how Cameron approaches representation, Jones spoke about the importance of diversity on campus and said that it’s encouraging to see the direction the university is taking toward accomplishing its goal of inclusion.
“When I enter my classes in the Education Department, I notice I’m often the only person of color in there,” she said. “It’s good of us to continue to get more word out there about the opportunities available. We can see things changing for the better, and we have to keep moving in that direction.”
Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services Dr. Jamie Polk represented the LPS viewpoint during the discussion and said she admired Jones’ spirit.
“This is an extremely bright young woman,” she said. “I just want to hire you [Jones] right now.”
Continuing off the topic of Cameron’s diversity, Polk said the role of parenting is crucial for the development of young students—all the way to college life.
“Parents managing an active and responsible level of involvement in the lives of their children can healthily impact their success for the future,” she said. “The state of education rests not just with the schools and funding, but with the sort of young minds who come into those doors. A lot of work and responsibility is built at home, far before kids arrive at school.”
Polk also said the state of education in Oklahoma is complex beyond what most people figure, especially over the topic of teachers’ pay, which she agreed was too low.
“It’s easy enough to say fire individuals up at the top and help disperse that income for the other educators in the state,” she said, “but it’s so much more intricate than all that. Every piece has a purpose—an important purpose—and we can’t forgo one thing to try and benefit another.
“We have great teachers here, even if funding is a lower priority. We will need to work on getting more teachers to want to come here, and to stay here after they graduate.”
Midway through the discussion, the talk shifted toward the importance of MLK Day, and what it means to the country.
Jones said the day is a reminder.
“The reason this day is still around and is still recognized is so the events that caused it are never forgotten,” she said. “It’s so we never repeat it, and so we understand the sacrifices of those who gave everything for it.”
Sellers arrived during this talking-point and said MLK Day is a great day and is a point of progress, but there is much further to go.
“It’s easy enough for people to come out and praise Dr. King on this one day,” he said, “but what about all the other days in the year? This shouldn’t be the one day that matters. There are a lifetime of problems in the country, and one day cannot solve them all.”
Sellers also led the talk on the current state of race relations in the United States, along with a reflection over the level of imprisonment in the country, particularly in the state of Oklahoma. He said systemic racism is a priority to address.
“It’s not complicated when you look at the incarceration rates,” he said. “There’s a major problem with those statistics, especially compared to other countries—and how it affects the African-American population. It’s hard to tell a black kid he can grow up to be a police chief when he sees no black police chiefs.”
Sellers went more into detail about the current state of social change in the country, and said the way that change is solved is through recognition.
“I can’t sit here and say I haven’t been through things other people haven’t experienced due to their race,” he said. “I have been through those things. I don’t let that hold me down, though, as my skin color isn’t me as an individual.
“The only way to remedy this is through recognizing what others go through.”
Cameron Dean Dr. Jennifer Dennis represented the university faculty on the panel. She said race relations in the country and on campus are readily improving.
“I agree with a lot of the thoughts expressed by the others [panel members],” she said, “in that how things are improving. It’s encouraging to see how so many things have changed.
“When it comes to Cameron, we do our best to reach out to everyone.”
Following the Panel Discussion, Sellers hosted a meet-and-greet with attendees that included a photo-taking and autograph signing, before then attending a press conference with local media that included KSWO, The Lawton Constitution, KCCU, CUTV and the Cameron Collegian.
Sellers said he loved coming down to Cameron University and involving himself with the Lawton, Oklahoma community.
“Change doesn’t always come from big universities and cities,” he said. “This is where those changes can count even more. Not one place—especially socially—is more valued than another. It’s important to recognize that and act on that.”