Social justice activist Shaun King returned to Kentucky on Thursday night to speak to University of Kentucky students about equality, activism and the state of humanity as a whole.
King, a Versailles native, spoke to students and community members in an event presented by the UK Student Activities Board and the Martin Luther King Center highlighting “The Art of Storytelling.”
Known for his reach on social media, the senior justice writer for the New York Daily News talked about how the changing ways information is distributed have contributed to social movements.
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But in the past two days, King said he’s seen the ugly side of social media.
On Tuesday, King was the top trending topic in the world for most of the day after the Daily Beast accused him of plagiarizing one of their articles in a column he’d written for the Daily News. An editor at the Daily News, accused of taking out several of King’s attributions, was fired later that day.
King said people from the Daily Beast accused him before finding out what really happened.
“Before they ever checked out the facts, before they did any type of investigation and before I knew they had even made any accusations, it was already trending,” King said. “People just ran with it.”
That wasn’t the only recent topic in the news that King addressed before continuing his speech.
“It seems inappropriate to talk about anything but Prince right now,” King said.
“One lesson that I’d like to squeeze out is that the dude lived his life, like full-on squeezed every ounce of talent,” King said. “He took major risks musically, stylistically, and was constantly ahead of the game and ahead of the curve.”
King said he hoped the students in the room would take similar risks.
“College students to me are almost always at the forefront of change in this country,” King said.
King went on to discuss how students and the community could address problems specific to Lexington. One audience member asked about the controversial statues of Confederate figures John Hunt Morgan and John C. Breckinridge.
“Maybe you should just consider taking them down yourself,” King said. He said that sacrifices are sometimes necessary when fighting for what you believe in and that extreme measures are sometimes worth considering.
The overall theme of King’s talk was that rather than a steady trajectory of improvement, humanity has seen many peaks and dips throughout history.
“Sometimes humanity is on this beautiful incline where the way people treat one another, the way we interact with one another, the way society evolves and improves ... it hits these peaks,” King said. “And sometimes that’s just not true.”
“Sometimes human beings get worse, sometimes they get way worse,” King said. He cited some of the lowest points in human history, including the Transatlantic slave trade and the Holocaust.
He went on to say that we may again be in one of those low points, showing statistics of police shootings of unarmed black men, and videos of police brutality and assaults at rallies for presidential candidate Donald Trump.
Another example King used was the mass incarceration of nonviolent criminals. He said in an interview after the event that many of his friends that he’d grown up with in Central Kentucky were now in jail for non-violent drug charges.
“The effect that mass incarceration has had on Lexington is something we just haven’t talked enough about,” King said. “It’s destroyed families and communities.”
Oftentimes it is a case of selectively prosecuting certain groups of people while ignoring recreational drug use in other communities, King said.
Lexington in many ways is cordial in its willingness to talk about racial issues, King said. “But a lot of students here and people in Lexington just didn’t feel like enough was actually being done, that the talk didn’t really match up with the actions.”
Martin Luther King Center programming interns Destiny Witherspoon and Savon Gray helped organize the event that brought King to campus, and both called it a success.
UK junior Tachae Sowell said that the issues discussed in King’s talk are important to everyone on campus, not just blacks. She said steps are already being taken with UK’s Call to Action town hall meetings.
“Today all we could have done is slightly loosen the lid on the jar, but the leaders here and the students here, they’re going to continue to fight for not just equality, but for justice on some of the issues that matter,” King said after the event. “Being heard is not justice, it’s just a step in that process.”