MISSOULA – Meshayla Cox will return to her alma mater this week as the keynote speaker at the University of Montana’s “King’s Legacy Lives” event, held at 3:30 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 16, at UM’s Davidson Honors College Lounge. Free and open to the public, the event is held to honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. The celebration will include a panel discussion, followed by awards for students who shared recently how they employ the legacy of MLK in their lives.
Tobin Shearer, UM African-American Studies director and history professor, said the University’s MLK celebration offers an opportunity to reflect on King’s full legacy – beyond a call for volunteerism.
“King was an organizer, a prophet and change agent,” Shearer said. “He was not satisfied with the status quo. Rather than simply invite people to paint a fence or clean up a sidewalk, we decided to call for deeper reflection and the informed action for racial and social justice that comes from it.”
Shearer invited Cox as a keynote speaker because she “embodies Kings’ legacy in her life and commitments, and she is particularly well equipped to challenge us and call us to live out King's legacy.”
Cox graduated from UM in 2018 with a bachelor’s degrees in African-American Studies and Spanish and is the former president of UM’s Black Student Union. At UM, she also was a student columnist for the UM student-run newspaper, the Montanan Kaimin. She now works for the Montana Racial Equity Project based in Bozeman as the nonprofit’s program, events and outreach coordinator.
Cox shared with UM News about her passion for dismantling systems of oppression through community dialogue, how her UM education helped prepare her for social justice work and why the activism of Martin Luther King Jr. endures in modern times.
UM News: You’re back at UM this week to share your personal vison about what the legacy and life of MLK means to you. What about his life and activism inspires you today?
Cox: Dr. King’s model for radical racial and social justice and his activism has largely influenced my life and my work. Dr. King not only championed racial justice but affordable housing, worker’s rights, living wages, education equity, criminal justice reform and many others. His multipronged approach to social justice included folks of all different backgrounds. I follow this model in all of my activism and organizing because we are not free until all of us are free. The success of social justice movements is not just dependent on the rights I obtain for myself, but rather for those who are most vulnerable in our communities.
UM News: Your work with the Montana Racial Equity Project is largely centered on cultural dialogue and community building. What does success look like in this field of work?
Cox: I believe it can be hard to measure success in social justice or racial justice work because the end goal of eradicating racism, bigotry and prejudice will not be seen in my lifetime or that of my children, great-grandchildren or great-great-grandchildren. However, the times when I feel we have achieved great success have come in the form of personal testimonials about the impact of our work from personal awakenings to the reality of racism, to making measured progress in seeking structural changes within organizations. The best measure of success in racial justice is exemplified through the societal uplift of black, indigenous and people of color.
UM News: How did your experience as UM student and training in the liberal arts prepare you for such a high-profile, often deeply personal and sensitive work?
Cox: My experience though the African-American Studies program helped me gain confidence in myself and my place in history. I credit much of my ability to do this work to my college professor, Dr. Tobin Miller-Shearer and BSU advisor, Murray Pierce. With their guidance and advice, I really found my voice as a black woman. I also find my strength through community. I have an amazing cohort of friends of color and allies, many of whom I met at UM, who guide me through all of life’s struggles. This work is deeply personal, but I am not alone in my experiences and I am reminded of that every day I connect with loved ones and others fighting for social justice.
UM News: The U.S. continues to see acts and voices of racism. How might your generation be equipped and emboldened to advocate for racial equity?
Cox: Well, we have hundreds of years of anti-racist movements and people like Dr. King to model our activism after. I also think social media serves as a strong platform for racial justice. #BlackLivesMatter sprung up through a social media hashtag and is now a worldwide movement for racial equity. Dr. King once said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere… whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” I feel that we truly take this to heart, we lead through empathy and understanding and see value in elevating voices of the oppressed around the world. I think our ability to reach out and connect with all kinds of people shows the determination in our generation to make our voices heard and connect with people around the country.
UM News: What advice might you give to fellow UM students who are interested in seeking employment in community building and social justice work?
Cox: Connect, connect, connect! Community is everything in this work. Seek out opportunities and relationships that bring you closer to racial justice advocacy. And always advocate for your own worth. People deserve a living wage, full employment and to work in an environment that fuels and protects you.