Preceding the presentation of the 2017 CCI Diversity Award to the Rev. Dr. Harold Middlebrook, the ninth annual Experience Diversity Banquet offered a parade of performances ranging from salsa and Laotian dancing to a capella singing on Friday, Feb. 17.
Hosted by the Diversity Student Leaders Society (DSLS) at Bearden Banquet Hall as a fundraiser for their organization, the night featured a top-notch dinner menu and wine selection to complement the evening’s entertainment. Chairs adorned with satin ribbons surrounded candlelit tables with fresh flower centerpieces.
DSLS Director, Alice Bowling Wirth, called it an “exclusive” affair, and at 35 dollars a seat, it was. But when Middlebrook took the stage, he knew exactly how to bring everyone in the room back down to earth.
Middlebrook attended Morehouse College in Atlanta the 1960s, where he met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He eventually found himself in Memphis, where he was active in several political action commissions. He helped coordinate King’s appearance in Memphis in support of a sanitation worker strike, and witnessed King’s assassination in person.
In 1986 Middlebrook founded the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration Commission of Greater Knoxville.
Middlebrook shared a powerful message, particularly notable after UT’s diversity office was stripped of funding last year.
“We are living in a time when state legislators want to return to what used to be. We’re living in a time when they don’t want campuses to talk about diversity. But I’ll tell you something,” he said. “ When they stand up and holler, and say ‘We’re gonna cut off the funds for the diversity program at the university… here [are individuals] that are number one, ignorant. But also, those people get a clannish mentality… They don’t want to be disturbed because anything that is different from what they are is challenging to them, and they don’t want to have to change. “
Nicholas Stokes, a sophomore in journalism at UT, acknowledged that diversity is essential.
“If everyone is the same, there is no reason to evolve,” he said. “If everyone… wants to be the same, walk the same walk of life and do the exact same things, then no one is experiencing new things. There is no substance being added to the world.”
Faith Howard, UT senior and DSLS president, felt that the banquet furthered the goal of promoting community acceptance of diversity.
“This event helps people see other cultures, and the guest speakers help us look at things from a different perspective. I think that’s just kind of powerful, and it speaks for itself,” she said. “We experienced so many different cultures tonight… And if you know about it, you can respect it. So I think that helps a lot.”
Middlebrook encouraged attendees to keep moving forward while assuring them that the battle is far from over.
“If you are not at the table, you suffer because your views are not heard or respected. And so as the fight for diversity moves on, it is so important that we must never forget that we need to be in the room, at the table… I came to tell you tonight, ain’t nobody gonna turn me around. I’m gonna keep on walking forward, I’m gonna keep on marching… and the struggle belongs to all of us,” he said. “Don’t worry – there’s another day coming… when all of us are going to join hands and say to this nation, ‘Nobody can divide us. Nobody can separate us. We are one!”
Edited by Kaitlin Flippo
Featured image by Bradley Blackwelder