By C.S. Hagen
FARGO – In grade school, Shaun King was the class clown, outgoing and funny. The light skinned 37-year-old writer and civil rights activist was more concerned with clothes, music, and girls than racism.
In high school his world fell apart. At first, the attacks came in the form of sticks and stones – racial slurs, a Gatorade bottle filled with chewing tobacco spit thrown in his face. Fistfights became common, he was chased by white boys in pickup trucks, he said, In March 1995 the tension broke, changing his life forever.
King was attacked by at least a dozen classmates, he said. He suffered severe spinal injuries that took 18 months to heal. His sophomore year in the rural Kentucky school was spent mostly in a hospital bed.
“They were never held accountable,” King said. “It was the culmination of two years of harassment, and those guys never bothered me again. They did what they wanted to do, and I never had another incident.”
Eventually King returned to the same school, but as a changed young man.
“It changed my heart,” King said. “It changed how I saw the world. I became deeply sensitive about people in pain, people in need of justice that I wasn’t aware of until it happened.”
Half black, half white, King went on years later to become a motivational speaker for Atlanta’s juvenile justice system, an ordained pastor, a writer followed online by more than 1.2 million people. Hundreds attended a speech he gave at Concordia College in Moorhead Monday evening.
Before the speech, King looked the college up in Google Maps. “I thought, wow this is really remote. I had never been to North Dakota or so far west in Minnesota before, and it was a good opportunity for me to challenge people’s thinking.
“I try hard not to just preach to the choir.”
King is also involved and has written extensively with the Black Lives Matter movement, covering discrimination, police brutality, the prison industrial complex, and social justice issues. He is a senior justice writer for the New York Daily News, and has won numerous awards including the Epoch Humanitarian Award, the Hometown Hero Award from the Atlanta Journal Constitution, was also included in MSNBC’s The Grio Top 100 History Makers.
The Internet is a tool King wished he had as a child. “There weren’t a lot of models and examples for me to look at and identify with,” King said. As a biracial child belonging neither to white or black, he often felt ostracized.
“Kids today, even those who live in the most rural areas of the country, now have the Internet, which gives them a lifeline outside their small world. I would have died for that.”
No longer a pastor, King draws from the 15 years he spent behind the pulpit to deliver his messages. He still believes in organized religion, but is more critical than he was as a pastor.
“I speak about it as someone who is a Christian, from a place of love, not from a place of hate or anger. People regularly confuse Christianity with white supremacy, or nationalism, I see it as a valid critique, but those who practice it know there is a difference.”
The recent hate group and hate speech resurgence across the nation was sparked by President-elect Donal Trump, he said.
“It is a backlash to Obama,” King said. “He developed a white supremacist following off of that idea. He developed a really bigoted racist foundation across the country, off his repeated insistence that President Obama wasn’t even an American, an imposter. That had a lot to do with Trump’s rise, the rise of hate groups, which have risen straight for the last eight years.”
Trump appealed to pre-existing prejudices and hatred, fingering a scapegoat for the nation’s problems, he said.
“Trump was also able to convince people that he listened to their personal grievances, when he has consistently outsourced his labor force his entire life. Particularly in the midwest, jobs lost, companies closed, he convinced them he cared, when he has no history for caring.”
Although King’s speech is across the Red River in Moorhead, he hopes North Dakotans will listen to his message.
“I knew very little about North Dakota until the Dakota Access Pipeline,” King said. He has also researched and written about the DAPL controversy since the protests became international news. “It’s hard for me now to view the state outside of that context. I know that’s not fair to all North Dakotans, but it has impacted how I view the state. I’m deeply disturbed by not just the pipeline, but also to our nation’s willingness to railroad anyone in the name of profit.”
The Peace Garden State had ample opportunities to prove it cared for its people and natural resources, King said. “First and foremost, the state should have opposed the pipeline altogether, and particularly the path its on now.”
“They’re masking their concern for the people, choosing profits over people and by downplaying the pipeline’s effects on the environment. It could have been a glorious opportunity for the state to not approve, but what they really want is for the protesters to get out of there.
“It’s a scary time for a lot of people. I really believe in the power of fighting for change at a local level. A lot of times we get so discouraged, fighting for change in your family, with coworkers, but challenge them to see the world in a better way. We’re not winning these huge battles, but sometimes you need to make the battle a little smaller. Ask yourself: how have I impacted the people I love or the people I work with?
“Change the world one person at a time, and that’s noble.”
If King’s message Monday night impacted a handful of people at Concordia, he said that is enough. “I will feel like that is a victory.”