Since Shaun King left Versailles to go to Morehouse College in Atlanta, he has traveled around the United States and the world, documenting social and racial injustices. Called a social media pioneer, King, 36, has nearly 250,000 followers on Twitter and reaches many more with his writing in the New York Daily News about topics including police brutality, the upcoming presidential election and racism in high schools.
King courts celebrities in his causes and controversy in his columns, getting into high-profile Twitter fights with former allies in Black Lives Matter, and calling out in print the squeaky-clean image of famed NFL quarterback Peyton Manning. His fundraising practices have been questioned, and on Tuesday, the Daily Beast website accused him of plagiarizing from one of their stories and several others. Later that day, the Daily News fired an editor whom officials said had taken out several of King’s attributions.
King said he will mention the matter in a speech Thursday at the University of Kentucky, but he plans on focusing on racial injustice, bringing students some context to what he calls today’s unique moment in history, when new lows in racism and inequality have given rise to a presidential election featuring extraordinary levels of vitriol.
“The quality of our humanity is on a downward trajectory,” King said in a phone interview. “Why does it feel like an era I never imagined I would feel? Why are we seeing things I thought died? ... Last year, 102 unarmed African-Americans were killed by police; we would have to go all the way back to 1903 to find a year where more than that were lynched in this country.”
King called the UK speech “a 360-degree moment for me. I’m really excited; this is a homecoming to me.”
Versailles’ lack of diversity meant King spent much of his high school life in the “big city” of Lexington, often at UK itself, where he attended writing workshops at UK’s Martin Luther King Center run by poets Nikky Finney and Frank X Walker. UK was “really kind of a refuge to me.”
After graduating from Morehouse College, King stayed in Atlanta to become first a high school teacher, then a preacher who became known as the Facebook Pastor. He worked to raise money for catastrophes, including the 2010 Haiti earthquake. All the while, he kept writing and speaking about civil rights and police brutality, and he became deeply involved in the Black Lives Matter movement, which grew in the wake of police shootings in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore.
In 2014, he became a contributor to the liberal website Daily Kos, and in 2015 he was named the senior justice writer at the New York Daily News, where he is a columnist who both reports on and opines about numerous issues.
King is also interested in the current movement at UK and at many other universities around the country to improve race relations in higher education. At UK, a group of black graduate and undergraduate students have started a #CalltoAction movement, with numerous meetings to improve the campus climate for minorities, and to improve more tangible benchmarks, including the achievement gap on graduation and retention rates.
“I think people are saying, ‘Hey, we contribute a lot but we don’t feel valued in a way that measures up to what we ask,’ and I agree with them: That is such an old fight at UK,” King said.
Around the country, mostly white administrations don’t realize what it feels like for black students who feel ignored or harassed or both, he said.
King said he might also talk about a recent incident at Lexington Catholic High School, which he wrote about in the Daily News, in which a black student was allegedly threatened with lynching by an older, white classmate. King attended the school briefly.
He said that story is reminiscent of some of the racism he faced as a minority in Versailles, a journey he’s exploring in a memoir he’s writing. King said he had to leave because if he stayed in Central Kentucky, he would have been constantly fighting with people and institutions.
“I felt like I had to get out, and set my mind on leaving very early,” he said. “There are some people like my mentor, Rev. Willis Polk (pastor of Imani Baptist Church), whose calling it is to stay and fight. ... I tell people, whatever you do, do it without fear. Do it like it matters because it does, and you can have a significant impact.”
If you go:
Shaun King’s speech, “The Art of Storytelling,” is sponsored by UK’s Martin Luther King Center and the UK Student Activities Board.
When: Thursday April, 21 at 5:30 p.m.
Where: Room 106, Whitehall Classroom Building