Commemorative Remarks by Plum Champlin C’23 – Inaugural Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service, January 16, 2023

The following remarks were given by Sewanee student Plum Champlin before the University of the South’s Inaugural Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service. To honor this day, the Office of Inclusive Excellence partnered with Sleep in Heavenly Peace, inviting the entire Sewanee community to help build beds for children in the local community who otherwise would not have a bed to sleep in. This piece has been revised for clarity of message, and to include accessible sources.

I first want to thank all of you who rose early to join in this morning. I’m so excited to get to work on constructing these beds, but I wanted to take a moment on this day honoring Martin Luther King Jr. to discuss the ways the community service we engage in today relates to the driving forces behind the Civil Rights Movement. 

Many of my friends will be able to corroborate the fact that I say, frequently and unabashedly, that I do not think that justice is real. I believe it is a word which stands for subjective, arbitrary points of view informed by human social norms, biases, and flaws (both overt and subconscious) prevailing in a given time — components which have ruled over our emotions as a species for tens of thousands of years. I believe the word justice can, more times than not, be replaced with a more candid word, the other side of the coin: “punishment.”

That is not to say that subjectivity and compromise are not necessary to maintain order in any given society; rather, in refuting “justice” as a term, I seek to stake a claim to a major ideological shift that I and many others believe to be necessary: in broad strokes, to craft a society which consistently makes the choice of love, of forgiveness, over revenge? The choice to override the instinctual desire for power over others, and instead embrace them as equals. The choice to share joys, share the pleasures of life, and make our world safer and more loving for all of us, rather than taking joys away from our fellow human beings through acts of punishment. 

I’ve chosen to share this outline of my own ideology because I have been deeply influenced by the wisdom of many great philosophers and leaders working in social movements from the Civil Rights Movement, to Black Lives Matter, to abolitionists who have tirelessly battled slavery, the police, and the prison industrial complex. But even moreso, I share my own criticisms of justice’s illusory nature in order to properly frame my relationship to one quote which uplifts justice, one which I keep close to my heart: 

“Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love” (38). 

Taken from Where Do We Go From Here, the final book he penned before his assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote this passage as a direct reply to, and refutation of, points on power and Christian love by Friedrich Nietzsche. Dr. King wrote that the “misinterpretation” of love’s relationship to power is not only Nietzsche’s, but “one of the greatest problems of history…” — namely, that “…the concepts of love and power are usually contrasted as polar opposites. Love is identified with a resignation of power and power with a denial of love” (37). Yet, again, King’s refutation holds undeniable weight, bringing together rather than pushing away: “Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.” 

To think of these things in connection is, for me, to accept the possibility of a return to form; to turn away from retributive justice, which itself stands against love, and towards the restorative. The compassionate. The brave. 

Stepping towards a restorative justice looks like providing care for those we disagree with, including those who cause harm. A Dr. King asserted in his Nobel Lecture in 1964, the true solution to violence cannot be more violence: “Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones. Violence is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding: it seeks to annihilate rather than convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends up defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.” 

I cannot begin to encapsulate the nitty-gritty of restorative justice or prison abolition in these few words, and I will not try (though I would encourage anyone to start with the words of Angela Y. Davis, who encouraged us at her University of Michigan Keynote in early 2020 to reflect on the unsung facets of Dr. King’s legacy: “They remember King the Dr. Orator, but not Dr. King the disrupter of unjust peace.”). But in short, in my own mind and heart, the essence of restorative justice is one of recognition: seeing oneself as a flawed human being, recognizing the humanity in those we disagree with, and extending compassionate care to all parties instead of choosing vengeful condemnation, shaming, or violence. This violence doesn’t just look like physical confrontation or psychological torment, but also the silent dehumanization which is created by racism, sexism, other homophobia, transphobia (and other identity-based biases), and by the prison industrial complex. 

As with all good things, the path towards uniting power and love begins with a single lesson: learning from those like Dr. King who spread the message of love, so we might be able to teach it to ourselves, our communities, and our world. To let the message of loving, powerful justice truly affect us is to rethink everything about how we treat ourselves, and one another. Because this ideology, the mission to devote our individual and collective agency to bolster joy and betterment for the oppressed, is its own kind of activism — it is why I call myself, after Adrienne Maree Brown, a pleasure activist in all that I do. 

And today, in working with Sleep in Heavenly Peace, we engage in taking this very sort of collective action: to bring more joy into the world. 

I would bet (or at least, I sincerely hope) that most folks in the audience know, from at least one night in their life, the comfort of a warm bed, the pleasure of a good night’s rest. It is a thing of loving. And it is an act of love, the verb, for us to work towards bringing that joy to another human being. 

I hope today, as we engage in this work, each of us can reflect on the roles we as individuals hold by acknowledging our agency, our power, and putting it towards good. And, perhaps, towards a justice which centers betterment, joy, peace, and love.

I’ll end by giving my sincere gratitude and thanks to every person who worked to provide the supplies we will work with today, all those in attendance, and all those who will receive joy from resting in these beds — and especially all those who created the infrastructure and programming that brought us together today. Thank you very much!

Plum Estella Champlin is a scholar, writer, and pleasure activist from Memphis, Tennessee. They are a Senior year English and Creative Writing major with a special focus on character-driven fiction, and worked as a research intern for The Roberson Project this past summer. They currently serve as a student leader for the Sewanee Literary Society, a member of the Q&A House, an intern for the Sewanee Interfaith Council, an Editor-in-Chief for The Mountain Goat Journal, and a doting babysitter.

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