Season 3, Episode 1 - Alumnus Christopher Wilson, keynote speaker at WSU's Martin Luther King Jr. tribute, on King's legacy then and now
Wayne State alumnus Christopher Wilson, the director of experience design and the African American history program at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History and the keynote speaker at this year's Martin Luther King Jr. celebration, on King's legacy then and now.
Director of experience design and the African American history program at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, WSU alum and Detroit native Christopher Wilson, this year's keynote speaker at WSU's celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., discusses King's legacy then and now.
In leading experience design at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, Christopher Wilson works to engage visitors in conversation about our nation's rich and diverse history. Chris founded several major program series at the Smithsonian, including History alive! theater programs, interactive and emotional presentations of stories of America's past that resonate in the nation's present; the National Youth Summit series, engaging high school students nationally and internationally in conversation about relevant history; and the History Film Forum, an exploration of film as public history. Chris has worked on exhibitions including Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life, American Democracy, and The Greensboro Lunch Counter. Chris spent 18 years at the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation before moving on to the Smithsonian in 2004 to take the role of director of the African American History Program at the National Museum of American History. In this role, he oversaw the program's rich collection of oral histories, interviews and recordings, as well as researched and produced programs primarily focused on the civil rights movement. He earned his bachelor's from the University of Michigan and his master's in history from Wayne State University. He has earned numerous accolades for his innovations in education and publishes book reviews and articles for Smithsonian magazine. Chris is currently working to relaunch his Time Trials program, which explores history and memory, as a series of graphic novels and a television program.
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Darrell Dawsey: Happy New Near and welcome to the Today@Wayne podcast, I'm your host Darrell Dawsey. As the first month of 2022 unfolds, we again find ourselves at that time of the year where we pay homage to the life and legacy of one of the most iconic figures in American history, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This Friday, January 14th, Wayne State will host its annual tribute to Dr. King with a series of speeches, performances, and awards recognizing those in our community who work daily to honor his legacy. The ceremony will also feature a keynote speech from WSU Alumnus, Christopher Wilson, the Director of Design Experience at the Smithsonian's National Museum in Washington, D.C. But we here at Today@Wayne podcast, are fortunate enough that we don't have to wait for that speech to hear from Christopher Wilson because he joins us here today as our special guest. Welcome, Christopher.
Christopher Wilson: Thank you for having me.
Darrell Dawsey: Absolutely, great to have you today and Happy New Year to you.
Christopher Wilson: Happy New Year to you too.
Darrell Dawsey: Indeed, indeed. So let's just jump into it, tell me a little bit about your relationship to Wayne State and then kind of give us a sense of what it is that you do in D.C.
Christopher Wilson: Sure, well, I grew up in Detroit and was the son of two Wayne State graduates. My mom and dad went to Wayne State in the '50s and were both zoology majors there and continued living and working in Detroit for their whole lives. I did an Undergraduate at University of Michigan, and then I started working at Henry Ford Museum in Greenfield Village, just outside Detroit, just after... Actually during undergrad. And then right afterwards, decided to pursue a history degree and started at Wayne State in the history department in LSNA and, and graduated with a master's degree a number of years ago, and worked at Henry Ford museum for about 18 years, all told. And now I'm in my 18th year at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History where I came down here in 2004 and working to preserve, and teach our nation's history at this Smithsonian.
Darrell Dawsey: Okay. All right. Well, now that's probably an interesting job at a very interesting time right now in American history, because there's, just so much going on in terms of arguments about how history should be taught, how history should be presented, who should be at the center of it, who should lead the conversations. I'm just kind of wondering, when you look out on kind of where we are today as a country, 2022, what do you think about how we are absorbing history? How we're viewing history? And what is it that we need to kind of understand? What are things that we can kind of do better and get right, get more right around when it comes down to understanding and retelling our history, particularly as it pertains to things such as the legacy of folks like Dr. King and the civil rights movement, and so many other great movements throughout our history?
Christopher Wilson: Well, I think one of the really important things is that we have to use history to connect with each other, and we just have to, we have to come together more than we often are. And so that to me is one of the things that is really instrumental in the work of museums and particularly the nation's museum, the Smithsonian. We are a place that can bring people together, we're a really trusted institution. It, I've always said that I don't think there's any other museum really in the world that is sort of a phrase when we talk about something that is old or is important. People will just say, "well, that should be in the Smithsonian." And we are such a trusted institution that we have a great opportunity to bring people together.
History as a historian I know history is, in one way, is the story of what happened in the past and it's an evidentiary struggle of historians to figure out and to use evidence to figure out what happened in the past. But it's also for, mostly for the general public it's really a story about the present. It's really about how we remember the past, how we use that to understand the present and chart a course into the future. And so when we are having these debates about what should be remembered, it's no surprise that it can get contentious because one group... We do a program at the Smithsonian that I started called time trials and we're actually turning that into graphic novels for young people this year. But the idea with it is that you can have a person or an event from the past, and two people can completely agree on the facts of the case.
They can completely agree on what this person or event was all about, but they can completely disagree on how we should remember that person, how we should, whether we should name a street after them, whether we should put up a statute, whether it should take down a statue, all of those things. And so I really feel that our place and my job is really to bring people together in much more mutual understanding, and civil dialogue about what we remember and what we don't, and hopefully help produce a better understanding between people.
Darrell Dawsey: Okay. All right. Well, thank you for that. Now, let's kind of fast forward a little bit. You're going to be speaking at Wayne State University, January 14th. Just kind of curious we do this event every year, we've had some wonderful speakers, and you're next to a long line of great folks who've spoken at this thing. Just kind of curious, what compelled you to want to be a part of MLK tribute?
Christopher Wilson: Well, I study the civil rights movement. I've had a career where I've been both at Henry Ford museum and at the Smithsonian. Been involved in collecting and preserving and teaching about the public history and the material culture of the civil rights movement. One of my great opportunities before I left Detroit, was working with the collection of the Rosa Parks bus at Henry Ford museum. And I was in charge of developing the educational program and training all of the people who told the story of that bus to visitors to more than a million visitors a year that came to Henry Ford museum. And then the first job I had at the Smithsonian was to run our program in African American history and culture, which had been started by the great civil rights activist, scholar and artist, Bernice Johnson Reagon, who was also the founder of the singing group, sweet honey in the rock, and original member of the student nonviolent coordinating committee, freedom singers.
She eventually took a job at the Smithsonian and became a curator and ran that and developed really the first Martin Luther king program, reminiscent program or commemoration program that the Smithsonian offered. And what her idea was, back in the '70s and early '80s, was that the national, and this was before there wasn't a national holiday for Martin Luther king, but the national celebration and commemoration of Martin Luther King day at the Smithsonian, wouldn't be about Martin Luther King. He was inspiration for it, but what she really wanted to do was to say, "well, this story of King and the story of the civil rights movement is not just about the leaders." The leaders were important that it would've been a different story if we didn't have Martin Luther king, if we didn't have Rosa parks, if we didn't have some of those great individuals, the few great individuals whose names make it into history books, but it also wouldn't have been the same if we hadn't had the tens of thousands of people whose names don't make it into history books, because, that was what turned those moments into a movement.
Darrell Dawsey: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Christopher Wilson: And so that is really important to me. I've tried to carry on Dr. Reagon's legacy at the Smithsonian in telling this wider story of the civil rights movement, because I think it's so empowering. A great friend of mine, a civil rights leader, Diane Nash, who was one of the founders of the student nonviolent coordinating committee, and really helped launch the freedom rides and many number of things. Diane still lives in Chicago. And she said to me a few years ago, if we remember the movement as great leaders who did X, Y, or Z, what we'll be thinking of in the future is I wish we had a person like Martin Luther king to lead us. But if we think of it as a ordinary people did this, then we'll be thinking of it as, "well what can I do?"
Darrell Dawsey: Absolutely.
Christopher Wilson: "How can I lead myself?" And I think that's, been really Bernice's message, Dr. Reagon's message, my message. And a lot of our programs that we do both at the Smithsonian, but also previously at Henry Ford Museum, that's really what I wanted to help people understand that this was a people's movement. It was ordinary people who did everything to move this, to move the nation along. And that is really empowering because it's still possible in the present.
Darrell Dawsey: Absolutely. Wow. Well, this is great. We get an interview and a little bit of a history lesson to go along with that. Really appreciate that. Now let's move on, now we know Dr. King is a legendary figure, obviously a Titan in modern American history. And this, what we've seen in recent years is sort of an interesting, almost weird kind of counterintuitive sense of familiarity with Dr. King. Sometimes something that may not always be warranted. People think they know everything there is to know about him, or they've reduced him to an "I Have a Dream" speech or March on Washington. I'm just kind of curious since we're talking about legacy, what is something about Dr. King's legacy that is not known to a whole lot of people, or is not often acknowledged in your mind?
Christopher Wilson: Oh, I think what's not off often acknowledged is just how radical he was, how radical really the movement that he led was. We think of it generally as again, as you said, a few lines from a few speeches, and really that he had this call for love. He had this call for a colorblind society. Those things, which he did, but on the other hand, he also had a call for, and was very open about remaking America, and an economic and a social and really a complete upheaval. You know, Dr. King came, studied the work of Gandhi and that, what Gandhi said and what other philosophers and leaders that he admired and that taught him were looking for was a remaking of of society. Even the speech, the most famous speech, the dream speech at the March on Washington, we all often forget that the March on Washington was about jobs and freedom.
I mean, that's what it was called the March on Washington for jobs and freedom. And even most of that speech, he's talking about the United States, giving... passing a bad check to citizens of color. And yes, he's saying we should love one another, but he was also saying that this... that certain changes that the country could make were relatively easy. That the really hard changes that the country needed to make to overcome this legacy of slavery, overcome this legacy of segregation and oppression and all of that, not just for black people, but for really all people, would take billions and billions of dollars and changes deep changes in the way the country was made up. So I think that, that's one of the things that is if you look, if you read his work, other than the few things that we normally do read, even one of his first books, stride toward freedom, which was his story of the Montgomery bus boycott, it's all laid out there and it is not generally the king that we all think of.
Darrell Dawsey: Sure. I always like to remind people that Dr. King died supporting striking sanitation records...
Christopher Wilson: Exactly.
Darrell Dawsey: ...in Tennessee and that's not something that should be forgotten. How do you think people should remember and honor the legacy of Dr. King? I mean we hear the speeches, we see everybody's got a movie on or something to that effect. But for, especially for younger people, because we got to remember Dr. King was a young man throughout this, he died at 33 years old, but for younger people, for older folks who like this broadcast. How do you think Dr. King's legacy should not just be remembered, but should be honored and practiced?
Christopher Wilson: I'm going to go back even farther to another great black leader who we should also know more about is Frederick Douglass, and Frederick Douglass was another Titan of American history.
Darrell Dawsey: Absolutely.
Christopher Wilson: I mean I think of him as really a founder of America...
Darrell Dawsey: Absolutely.
Christopher Wilson: ...because he was so influential throughout so much of the 19th century. And right toward the end of his life, Frederick Douglas was giving a talk and a young man came up to him and asked him "what I can do Mr. Douglas, what can I do to further the state of black people to further freedom in this country?" And Frederick Douglas as an old man looked down at the younger man and said, "agitate, agitate, agitate, never be satisfied." And I think Dr. King would say the same thing. I think the people who advised Dr. King, I'm a great lover and student of the history of Bayard Rustin, who was really the architect of the March on Washington and a great advisor to Dr. King and a person who, the only reason I think we don't know more about him was that he was a gay man in the 1950s and '60s. And was really pushed out of the movement for that reason and kind of pushed out of American history for that reason. But people are starting to remember him more now. And I think he, as a great advisor of Dr. King, the other thing besides just agitation, he always was really pushing many of the young leaders who became the leaders of the civil rights movement, Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), people like that, to have a really actionable plan, to not just demonstrate and protest for the sake of doing it, but to find a way to use pressure points, to do things that could not be ignored.
One of the things that he was always pushing king and others to do was to find ways to use nonviolence, to use nothing but your body and your will to put yourself in places where gears in society don't turn, and to really force a change. So again, this goes back to what I was saying earlier, that the movement what King and the rest of the people that were pushing the nation toward its ideals in the 1950s and '60s were doing so in really radical ways. They we're deciding that if we don't change, if we don't deal with things like the violence that happened in Birmingham, where the four little girls were killed, that those sort of violence, what we're going to do is use non-violence and non-violent direct action to completely shut down society and completely remake it.
But we're going to do that nonviolently in the same way that Gandhi did. So, I mean, that is to me the radical nature, and also the beautiful aspect of this that is one of the things that we should think through that this movement really started because people got angry. Every civil rights activist I've ever met, I had the great opportunity to meet Rosa Parks on a number of occasions and spend time with her, two people like Diane Nash to the Greensboro Four, who started the sit-ins at the Woolworth's in Greensboro, North Carolina, which is one of the iconic objects we have at the Smithsonian. All of them said I started this because I was angry as hell, but they didn't turn to violence in that way. They turned to another equally powerful manner was nonviolent direct action.
Darrell Dawsey: So, all right. Well, we're close to wrapping up. I know you're busy. We don't want to take up too much of your time. We really appreciate you joining us, but I did want to give you an opportunity to address anything that maybe I may not have spoken to or something that you may think is important to address that maybe we haven't had a chance to cover. Is there anything like that out there for you?
Christopher Wilson: Well, sure. I mean, again, the other thing I guess I would say related to these topics was growing up in Detroit, my parents and grandparents were always, always reminded me of the great Leaders and the great movements that came out of Detroit. So the awful racism that took place in Detroit that resulted in things like restrictive covenants and in really bad situations in terms of housing and so forth. We think of a Detroiter like Dr. Ossian Sweet, who really fought against that. And so I think that that is a legacy that we as Detroiters have as well. Martin Luther King gave an early version of his, "I Have a Dream" speech in Detroit, one of Malcolm X's most famous speeches came in Detroit at Cobo hall.
So we were always involved in this and involved really on the grassroots. One other great Detroiter that I had the pleasure to know was Dr. Silas Norman, who was also a surgeon at Wayne State University. And I knew him when he was actually my father's doctor. And I was in high school and then I learned more about him learned that he was a great singer in coral groups in Detroit and his sister was the famous opera singer, Jessye Norman. And so that blew my mind, and then in addition, I learned that Silas Norman developed the whole Selma voting rights strategy for the student nonviolent coordinating committee. When he was a college student in 1964 and was working down in Selma to register people to vote and to begin that voting rights struggle that ultimately resulted in the voting rights March marches from Selma to Montgomery and the voting rights act that is being debated again in the Congress of the United States, right now. So Silas Norman as a great Wayne State graduate and Doctor and surgeon and Detroit figure was hugely important in many different ways.
Darrell Dawsey: All right. Well, Christopher, thank you for bringing all that full circle and for taking the time to sit out and talk with us today, we really appreciate having you here on the Today@Wayne podcast. This is Christopher Wilson. He's going to be our keynote speaker at the MLK tribute on January 14th. So we urge people to log onto our website, wayne.edu, and find out more information about it and how you can sign up, check them out. Christopher, thanks again. We really appreciate your time. You have a wonderful day.
Christopher Wilson: Thank you. You too.
Darrell Dawsey: Awesome. All right.
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