Jelani Cobb Comes to Bridgewater College

New Yorker Staff Writer, Educator and Speaker Provides Insight on Race and Justice in Today’s America

Jordan Davis, Staff Writer

Bridgewater, Va- Born in Queens, New York, Jelani Cobb is a renowned New Yorker staff writer and a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Cobb’s writings mainly focus on the complexity of race in America. Cobb is prominently featured in Ava Duvernay’s 13th, an Oscar-nominated documentary about the current mass incarceration of black Americans.

 Cobb has written a series of articles about race, the police, and injustice. These articles include “Murders in Charleston,” and “The Anger in Ferguson.” Cobb has received Fellowships from the Fulbright and Ford Foundations in conjunction with his Walter Bernstein Award from the Writer’s Guild of America for his investigative series Policing the Police

Cobb made the trip to Virginia to speak to not only Bridgewater students, but to the entire Bridgewater community. The convocation was held in Cole Hall on Jan. 20, 2020. Cobb was first introduced by President Bushman. 

Before Cobb started his speech, he disclosed to the audience that he is “always eager and happy to see Dr. King recognized, as an activist, a writer, and a speaker. My favorite instant of recognition was a few years ago, I was reading a newspaper online and I saw that the local BMW place was having a sale. I thought to myself, you can march and protest, then drive off in style,” said Cobb.

Cobb revealed the history and importance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Cobb first clarified any misinterpretations of why MLK Day is an important holiday. Cobb followed with an explanation of how King was incredibly unpopular during his lifetime. “Dr. King, while alive, was criticized by the bulk of the US. Dr. King wasn’t radical enough for the radicals and wasn’t modern enough for the modernists. Today, we recognize who Dr. King was at the expense of what he did,” said Cobb.

Jelani Cobb asked the audience of about 100 members, how many people had read the entire “I Have a Dream” speech, and only five raised their hand. “That speech was his worst speech that he ever made. It was over sixteen minutes long, the words sounded tangled, and it resembled a legal document instead of an inspirational speech. Someone during Dr. King’s speech shouted out ‘Tell them about the dream,’ which is then when Dr. King puts his notes aside and starts speaking from the heart,” said Cobb.

Prior to his assassination, King acknowledged in numerous of his final speeches “I may not get there with you, but we as a people will get there together at the promise land. Longevity has its place, but I fear no man,” as he looked mortality straight in the eye. King realized at this moment; he went as far as he could go after leading numerous movements and marches to reconcile the racial hierarchy and pretenses of American democracy. 

Cobb then transitioned into the arc of progress. Cobb thoroughly explained how the United States came to have the holiday. In April 08, 1968, a group of civil rights activists marched on King’s behalf and in support of garbage workers four days after King was killed. The following day, Congressman John Conyers created a bill to turn King’s birthday into a holiday, however the bill did not go into effect. 

In 1971, three million Americans signed a petition that was sent to Congress that King’s birthday should be a national holiday. It was not until a state legislator, Harold Washington, reintroduced the bill and was able to get it sent through, thus making Illinois the first state to recognize King’s birthday as a national holiday. In 1973, after Coretta Scott King made a phone call to Stevie Wonder to sing happy birthday nationally for her late husband, King’s birthday became a national holiday.

“What we don’t recognize is that the dynamics of progression of the marginalized groups get backlash,” explained Cobb. MLK day was treated by some people as a confederate history day or Robert E. Lee day to counteract what King stood for. 

Following the acknowledgment of how MLK Day came to be, Cobb transitioned into how King inspired the great migration. Prior to slavery, people of color would escape further south instead of north, because they knew that the Spaniards would not return them to the US. After Florida was seized by Andrew Jackson and the annexation of Texas, people of color started to flee north. 

However, now the public opinion of who is in the right of racism is still at large. “African-Americans were called several racial slurs and pebbles were thrown at them while Nazis and fascist supporters were still around after World War ll claimed 250,000 American lives. Mississippi turned into the New York Yankees of racism. It’s the fundamental hypocrisy on American democracy,” said Cobb.

“In colonial Africa, white men came to take the land and gave us the bible.” This analogy was used to justify the exploitation of classes and society. The white men would give African Americans segregation in exchange for material value to make them feel like they are not less than. That is what Cobb defines as a “fundamentally economic problem” and “a problem of backlash.” It is unjust to believe that any progress for the ex-slave population will be taken out of the pockets of white people. 

When Cobb’s father was 21 in 1940, he lived in Georgia, had a first-grade education and worked 60 hours a week for 52 weeks a year. Even after Cobb’s father left Georgia to move to New York, there was a continuous southern-style racism in the north. 

Cobb concludes with this final quote, “We mustn’t continue the same backlash that Dr. King endured. The first black president received the same backlash, there wasn’t a question that he wasn’t born in the US, but it was convenient for people to ask. The south didn’t rise, the rest of the country sank to be with them. “We shall overcome ourselves,” said King. Say it regarding yourself, it’s a mantra.”

The convocation began at 7:34 p.m., and lasted until 8:20 p.m. Afterwards, Cobb was able to answer various questions from the audience which concluded at 8:33p.m.