By Joe Johnson, The Charlotte Observer, Originally Published Jan. 20, 2019
DURHAM, N.C. — African-American civil rights activist Tarana Burke is calling on women to be strong.
Burke is credited with starting the “Me Too” movement in 2006, a campaign that encourages men and women to feel empowered and say “me too” if they have been victims of sexual harassment, abuse or assault. The movement gained national attention and renewed urgency in the past two years after allegations against high profile men rattled entertainment, political, sports and other industries.
Burke spoke on Jan. 20 at Duke Chapel, presenting the keynote address during Duke University’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration. Her 20-minute talk addressed many themes, from raising awareness about women facing sexual abuse and assault to the leadership role African-American women played during the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
“I’ve realized folks don’t understand two things,” Burke said. “One, they don’t understand Dr. King’s connection to women and women in leadership, and then what it takes to build a movement.”
Burke recounted the contributions of several women who were critical to the success of the civil rights movement, including Jo Ann Robinson, a co-founder of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Rosa Parks and Diane Nash, a civil rights leader who Burke said hasn’t received nearly the same amount of attention for her contributions.
She called on women today to be visionary.
“We live in a culture of instant gratification,” she said. “So not only do we want results quickly, we are often not committed enough to the broader, more expansive vision that we are placated by short-term victories.
“That’s not what a movement is. Imagine if they stopped at being able to sit anywhere on a bus. Movements are incremental and built over time. They’re strategic and thoughtful.
“In order to build effective, sustainable movements, we have to believe in something that seems impossible to others is actually possible.”
In talking about the origins of the Me Too Movement in 2006, Burke said she felt like there was a “deficit of possibility” among women.
“Nobody talked about sexual violence,” she said. “Nobody spoke of it.”
But during the last year, that has changed, she said.
“So many people don’t understand what it means to be a survivor,” Burke said. “Or what it means to carry that trauma. But I believe in movement and I believe in organizing. It was a tool I had. It made sense to build a movement.
The audience, which nearly filled Duke Chapel to capacity, listened intently as Burke recounted her experiences.
“It was a simple idea,” Burke said. “We started with spreading the possibility that healing was possible. It didn’t feel like a vision but we built a movement on hope and faith and vision.”
Brenda Blue, who attended the talk with two friends, said Burke’s words are inspiring because she has “the courage and the voice to come out about this.”
“Because there are so many women, especially black women, who have been traumatized by sexual abuse,”Blue said. “It’s an emotional thing to deal with.”
Before Burke spoke, Duke University President Vince Price and Durham Mayor Steve Schewel reflected on the importance of remembering King’s contributions.
Price said it is part of Duke’s mission to train thinkers who strive for moral equity and justice.
Schewel, a Duke graduate, said he is proud of his alma mater for finally removing the statue of Robert E. Lee that stood near the entrance of the chapel until last year. It was damaged in the fall of 2017 following a series of Confederate statue protests in Durham and Chapel Hill.
Schewel also offered his thanks to outgoing UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt for ordering the removal of the base that held the Confederate statue known as Silent Sam last week.
“We all know Confederate statues across the South must come down,” Schewel said. “She had the courage have that base removed.”
His comments received thunderous applause.