Shaun King Shaun King wanted to teach a lesson about time. A lesson that began with a man in 18th-century garb sporting a bushy white beard.

Speaking to a capacity crowd at Amherst on Dec. 6, the activist and journalist said the portrait seemed to stand in opposition to all he believed in. 

“I remember thinking, ‘Nothing matters right now,’” he said. “What do you have to teach me?” 

King’s initial pessimism when confronted with this portrait—of Leopold von Ranke, known as the father of modern, source-based history—would eventually morph into a new understanding of humanity’s evolution.

“Tonight I want to teach a lesson on how time works, how time unfolds in the context of history,” he said. “It’s very difficult to know a moment of history when you’re in it.”

King is known for his work with the Black Lives Matter movement. He is such a well-known figure on social media that, he joked, people now refer to him as “@ShaunKing” instead of “Mr. King”

He was invited to campus by the Amherst College Democrats, a student group, after their vice president, Megan Yang ’20, heard him speak in New York City.

 “I was so inspired after listening to him,” Yang said in her introduction of King. 

December 12, 2017

Writer and activist Shaun King speaks to a full house in Johnson Chapel on Dec. 6, 2017.

During his Thursday talk, King recalled his own college activism protesting the shooting deaths of Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell. He stepped back from activism, he said, when he married and started a family. 

Then, one day, a friend sent him a video of Eric Gardner dying after being placed in a chokehold by police. King began sharing and tracking the number of people killed by police, joining protests and getting personally involved with the legal cases brought by victims’ families.

At about the same time, King enrolled in graduate school and began taking a history class that featured the teachings of von Ranke. Contrary to the German’s own expectations, von Ranke’s studies led him to believe that while technology had steadily improved over time, humanity had not. Instead, humanity has experienced peaks of prosperity and peace, followed by deep valleys of just the opposite. 

“The only thing he found consistent over time was that human beings never just got better and stayed that way,” King said.

“If humanity is getting better and better, how do we explain the Holocaust?” King continued. “If we’re getting better and better, how do we explain Rwandan genocide?”

“We are currently in a dip in the quality of our humanity. You, of all generations, are coming of age in the dip,” he said. “If your impression is we’re out of this dip when Donald Trump is impeached or voted out of office, you don’t understand the dip.”

Asked what college students can do to mobilize, King suggested they create new organizations to against injustice and take steps to create change at their own schools.