#BlackLivesMatter leader DeRay McKesson brings race justice conversation to YDS

“Protest,” said the activist and movement leader who is widely derided by critics as a professional protester, “is as American as America itself.”

That was but one of many memorable quotes flying on Twitter and in audience members’ notes when DeRay McKesson, the highest profile leader of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, spoke at YDS on October 2.

McKesson was at YDS to guest-lecture in the inaugural installment of the School’s new Transformational Leadership for Church and Society program, which later this semester will feature U.S. Sen. Chris Coons ‘92 M.A.R. and prominent minister Nancy Taylor ‘81 M.Div.

In addition to two days of direct interactions with students enrolled in the one-credit course, McKesson engaged in an energetic public conversation in Marquand Chapel. After being interviewed by program director William Goettler, he fielded questions being tweeted (and scribbled on notecards) by the overflow audience.

Among the other tweetable quips from McKesson—which were being live-tweeted, naturally, by many in the audience—were these:

  • “America has weaponized blackness.” In the eyes of society and police, “I am always armed.”
  • On the movement’s reliance on Twitter and lack of access to mainstream media: “There’s a critique that it’s only Twitter. We’ve seen ‘only Twitter’ save lives.”
  •  ”Unlike in the 1960s, the movement this time did not spring out of the church. I’ve been trying to get the church to step up more, hoping the theology of protest will catch up. … The church [has been] more cautious than Christ would have been.”
  • “Twitter and the classroom are the last two radical places in America.”
  • “I am not the movement. The movement is bigger than me, bigger than you. The movement is us. It will take all of us to win.”
  • On the purpose of the statement “black lives matter,” which is not intended as an affirmation: “We know we matter. … I am saying it to see how [people] respond, how structures respond.”

Wearing his trademark blue down vest and posing for numerous selfies with students and other event attendees, an animated McKesson clearly relished his interaction with YDS. The day after the completion of the course, the Bowdoin College graduate tweeted to his 232,000 followers, “I’m still processing some of the powerful conversations we had in the @YaleDivSchool course I taught over the past two days.”

Audience photoHelping spur those conversations were the readings enrollees were required to do in advance of the class. Among the assigned works were Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Spiegel & Grau, 2015) and Silent Covenants: Brown v. Board of Education and the Unfilled Hopes for Racial Reform by Derrick Bell (Oxford, 2005). To complete the course, students are writing papers reflecting on the readings and interactions with McKesson.

“DeRay McKesson prompted deeply thoughtful reflection on the work of social change and leadership in ministry,” said Associate Dean Goettler, the instructor of record for the course.

From the time of the August announcement of the new program and McKesson’s role as the first guest-lecturer, YDS has heard wildly positive enthusiasm from its students and movement supporters from around the country—as well as complaints from those opposed to the #blacklivesmatter movement and the idea of its leader speaking at venerable Yale. There were no disruptions over the course of the weekend.

October 7, 2015