Fr. Brown Addresses M.L.K. Banquet

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

Catholic scholar and writer Joseph A. Brown, SJ, delivered a pointed critique of the American economic system at the 17th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Committee Awards Banquet on Feb. 11 in Lyons Hall.

Also at the event, Allison Harriott '99, an honors student in the School of Education and a community volunteer who plans a career in medicine, was named winner of the Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship.

More than 400 guests filled the Welch Dining Room in Lyons Hall to hear Fr. Brown's rousing keynote address and see Harriott chosen for the scholarship.

University President William P. Leahy, SJ (left), at the banquet with scholarship winner Allison Harriott and keynote speaker Joseph Brown, SJ. (Photo by Gary Gilbert)
University President William P. Leahy, SJ, presented the scholarship, which is given annually to a junior of African descent whose achievements echo King's spirit. The scholarship covers three-quarters of the student's tuition for senior year.

Fr. Brown, head of the Black American Studies Program at Southern Illinois University, urged fellow Catholics and educators to remember King's legacy by meeting their obligation to love the less fortunate. He also challenged Boston College to institute a "humanities core for the 21st century" that would require students to take two courses apiece in black studies, women's studies and Hispanic studies, as well as courses in Native American, Asian and other multicultural topics.

In the course of his remarks, Fr. Brown sharply criticized what he described as the injustice inherent in the American capitalist system, and compared the current political era with the 1890s, when post-Civil War civil rights laws were rolled back and Jim Crow became entrenched.

"There is a profit to be made from inequality. That's the American way of life," said Fr. Brown. He maintained that those on welfare are not there as a result of "moral failure," but are kept there by the forces of capital as a labor reserve to keep the employed in check. "You've got to keep the mob as a threat to control those who work for you," he said.

He also cited several large American corporations that he claimed profit by keeping young black men in jail, and suggested that college graduates who go to work for such corporations are complicit in an economic system that is the modern-day moral equivalent of slavery.

Fr. Brown added that King's most oft-quoted phrase has been reduced to meaninglessness.

"I have made it my holy obligation to never quote 'I have a dream' again. I'm sick of it," said Fr. Brown, who claimed the phrase has been widely overemphasized at the expense of King's central message - that America's promissory note to black citizens had gone unfulfilled and that the country was in dire need of greater economic justice.

"He didn't get killed because he said, 'I have a dream,'" Fr. Brown said of King. "He got killed because he said we have to restructure the economy of America."

Fr. Brown, whose strident and sometimes tongue-in-cheek delivery drew an enthusiastic response from the audience, acknowledged his remarks have tended to ruffle feathers, and have led him change university jobs several times in his career.

"That's why I go from place to place to place like an itinerant Methodist preacher," Fr. Brown said, with a laugh, "and why I always have my check in my pocket before I talk."

Fr. Leahy said Fr. Brown's rhetorical style had changed little in the quarter-century since the two first met as members of the Wisconsin Province of the Society of Jesus.

"I've known Fr. Joe Brown for 25 years and he has always spoken with great honesty," said Fr. Leahy, who noted Fr. Brown had ascended the podium to speak with a copy of the New Jerusalem Bible in his hand. "The challenge for us is to build the new Jerusalem," said Fr. Leahy.

"I hope we bring home with us tonight a renewed commitment to work for justice and to work for peace," Fr. Leahy added.

Carolyn Jupiter-McIntosh, an O'Neill Library copy center coordinator who served as Martin Luther King Committee co-chairwoman, said, "I think people responded to the speaker very well. You cannot always walk on eggshells around people."

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