King Center Statement on Anti-racism

Events of the past several months could cause us to feel dispirited. As a pandemic has been infecting millions around the world and killing over 100,000 Americans, we in the United States are also witnessing the graphic deaths of African Americans at the hands of former and current law enforcement officers, exposing yet again in horrific ways how entrenched systemic racism is woven into the fabric of our nation. We have seen the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis caught on video; the murder of Breonna Taylor in Louisville not caught on video; and the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, gunned down while running through his Georgia neighborhood. While these events might cause us to feel we are no longer in control, we know that we have the power to act. As we face these dual pandemics of coronavirus and racism, we know that our struggling health care systems and racist social structures occurred through intentional effort. Now is the time to build new foundations, by, in part, looking carefully at our past. As we who study the American South know full well, the injustices revealed by COVID-19 and police violence have their roots in white supremacy.

Those who have attended programs by the Spencer B. King, Jr. Center for Southern Studies know that we have spent our entire existence examining the many experiences of this region we call “the South.” Unequal healthcare and disease, often used to show the backwardness of the American South, have deep roots in racialized and gendered constructions about black and white female and male bodies. The school-to-prison pipeline has a shameful history of labor and incarceration in the American South when slavery no longer served as a tool for labor control. Gender norms, undergirded by a particular form of Christianity, reinforce dehumanizing notions of hierarchy. Rich complexities and clichés find equal expression in the art and literature of the region, with all voices claiming they speak for the authentic South. More often than not, white voices won out. While all of these things are part of the study of the South, they are also a part of the American experience. Rather than the outlier in American history, the region allows us to understand notions of white supremacy and all the actions African Americans and First Nation peoples took to undermine those ideas and laws. To study the American South critically is to make visible the long trail of racial and economic oppression.

The King Center is an anti-racist center for the study of a region that is often understood as the most prominent place of racism. We host programs that explore racist assumptions that have formed the region’s physical and moral geography. We advocate for social programs that address systemic injustices built on those assumptions. We disassociate the King Center from all aspects of Lost Cause mythology, evidenced by the renaming of our prize in southern literature. Our endowment sustains both undergraduate education and academic scholarship for minority students and scholars, as well as those who work to address systemic inequalities. We are working to make Mercer and its programs a flagship of anti-racist work. We commit to all of these things by encouraging others to join us in studying and writing about the region in honest ways.

We can do more to reform the racial landscape at Mercer and beyond. As we resume the work of the King Center in the wake of the pandemics, we will be reaching out and listening more to those who have been wounded by this region and nation’s social structures. We will build programming that allows for those voices to be heard and addresses those wounds. The events of the past few weeks make clear that the work we do at the King Center is relevant and necessary not just to the American South but American society as a whole.