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Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration turns out to be a family affair

By NUWC Division Newport Public Affairs | Jan. 29, 2019

NEWPORT, R.I. — What started as a planned event to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) Division Newport, turned out to be a gathering of several long-lost relatives.

Donald Gomes, of Newport, Rhode Island, special interest program manager in NUWC Newport’s Equal Employment Opportunity, Diversity and Inclusion Office, was organizing the lecture by Dr. Akeia A. Benard, of Middletown, Rhode Island, who is curator of social history at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts. As they were discussing the Jan. 17 event, they discovered that they were cousins. Benard’s maternal grandmother was a sister to Gomes’ father, making Benard’s mother and Gomes cousins. 

Another family relation was discovered when Brandon Massey, of NUWC Newport’s Information Technology Division, who was attending the lecture, realized he and Gomes were cousins too. Massey, of Newport, is an ancestry enthusiast and had been in contact with Benard on the website ancestry.com. They discovered that Massey’s great-grandfather and Benard’s maternal great-great-grandmother, who was a Massey, were siblings. Benard had no idea that Massey worked at NUWC Newport and would be attending her lecture.

Benard also was surprised to see her father, Virgil Lewis, a contractor for Lockheed Martin who supports the Sensors and Sonar Systems Department, at the event.

“I hadn’t even thought to mention it to him,” she said. “I have been very into social justice and human rights since high school, and we would always have political discussions, sometimes debates, so it was really cool to be able to speak on these issues as a professional in front of him.” 

Lewis said he was extremely proud watching his daughter speak to such a large audience about such important issues.

Benard’s speech, “Dr. King’s Vision and Today’s Realities,” characterized King as a human rights activist, rather than a civil rights activist.

“Our public memory of Martin Luther King Jr. skips ahead to the end product of his call for human rights rather than focusing on the foundations and work we need to do collectively as a society to make social harmony a reality,” Benard said.

“How would Dr. King feel about where we are?” Benard asked. “Today, I believe Dr. King would be disappointed, but hopeful. Disappointed perhaps because although major strides have been made in laws regarding race and racial discrimination, discrimination is still a fact of daily life for people of color. Systematic and cultural oppressions remain intact. We have whitewashed his message to be one that simply says that we should all just be kind to one another and get along, and thus we have overlooked his primary call for economic justice as a precursor to real social justice and racial harmony.” 

Benard believes that King would be hopeful because people of color continue to struggle for equality, mostly through non-violent means, and do so despite personal risk. King would have agreed with Mahatma Gandhi, who he called “the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent social change,” when Gandhi predicted the failure of oppression. King’s words reiterate the following from Gandhi: “When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time they seem invincible, but in the end they always fall.” 

When King gave his famous “I have a dream” speech in 1963, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was only 15 years old. Drafted by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in 1947 and 1948 and adopted by the UN General Assembly on Dec 10, 1948, the declaration was a response to the atrocities of the Holocaust and lists the inalienable rights of all human beings. King understood and actively promoted this concept of human rights, Benard noted.

Many rights in the declaration address civil and political rights, such as the right for all to be equal before the law, the right to freedom of thought and speech, the freedom from arbitrary arrests, the right to a fair trial, freedom from interference with privacy, freedom of movement, the right to peaceful assembly, and the right to participate in government.  Many other rights are social and economic: the right to own property, the right to social security, the right to work without discrimination and with equal pay for equal work; the right to an adequate standard of living, medical care, housing and food. 

“We are blinded to the net effects of racial privilege and oppression,” Benard said. “One of the net effects of privilege is that those who are privileged are shielded from their own privilege as well as the realities of the oppressed, believing that minorities are ‘taking things too far’ when they speak or act out against their oppression.”

To demonstrate some of the invisibility of oppression and privilege, Benard asked the audience to think about how their race affects answers to the following statements from “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” an article by Peggy McIntosh:

  • If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
  • I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
  • I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well sure I will not be followed or harassed (and, I should add “asked by customers if I work there”).
  • When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization” I am shown people of my color made it what it is.
  • I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.
  • I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own physical protection.
  • I am never asked to speak for people of my racial group.
  • I can be pretty sure if I ask for the “person in charge” I will be facing a person of my race.
  • I can choose to ignore developments in the minority community or disparage them or learn from them, but in any case, I can be protected from making any of these choices.
  • I can worry about racism without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking.
  • I need not ask if negative episodes in my life have racial overtones.
  • I can use products, such as Band-Aids, pantyhose or makeup called “flesh colored” and more or less have it match my skin.

“If Dr. King were alive today, I can’t help but wonder if he would be disappointed in our failure to address the complex intertwined issues of race and poverty and social neglect in favor of an easy message of racial harmony,” Benard said. “Maybe he would think we gave up on the harsher work he set out for us to do. And, I imagine, he would take to the streets, risking violence against his person and imprisonment again to remind us of the task he set for us and the vulnerable people that are still in need of a charismatic voice to speak to their cause, for their equality, justice and the inclusion of all of us in a prosperous society.”

After the speech, the audience was given a chance to ask questions.

“What can we do to make it better in school, work place, community?” Capt. Mike Coughlin asked.

“Getting people to be active in their own communities is a really big first step,” Benard replied.

About the speaker

Benard earned her doctorate in anthropology/archaeology in 2008 from the University of Connecticut. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Salve Regina University and a master’s degree from the University of Connecticut. She has been working for the New Bedford Whaling Museum since August 2017. 

Previously, she was an assistant professor at Wheelock College, in Boston, Massachusetts, for nine years in the Department of Psychology and Human Development, with a background in African-American and Native-American ethno-history and archaeology in New England and the Caribbean. She has documented African-American histories, landscape development, and Rastafarian and indigenous worldviews. Benard’s interests and projects have included the early African-American community in Newport, Rastafarian culture in the U.S. Virgin Islands, cultural landscapes, community-inclusive archaeology and oral histories, Native American contact-period adaptations and establishing and stewarding relevant and impactful community cultural partnerships. Her role at the museum is to curate Old Dartmouth regional stories from past to present as they relate to the museum’s mission and exhibition and research goals.

NUWC Division Newport, part of the Naval Sea System Command, is one of two divisions of the Naval Undersea Warfare Center. NUWC Division Newport’s mission is to provide research, development, test and evaluation, engineering and fleet support for submarines, autonomous underwater systems, undersea offensive and defensive weapons systems, and countermeasures. NUWC’s other division is located in Keyport, Washington.