Everyone always asks Anita Hill if she knew in 1991 what she knows now, would she testify again about her allegations of sexual harassment by Judge Clarence Thomas?
“The answer is always yes,” she told a crowd Thursday night at Elon University. “This is not the life I had thought I was going to have, but at this point in my life, and I’m quoting the words of Shirley Chisholm, I realize that I was then and now and will always be a catalyst for change, and with your help I will continue to make sure I do everything in my power I make that change happen.”
Hill delivered the this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. commemorative address at the university. She quoted from King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and said the #MeToo social justice movement was breathing new life into his words.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” she read. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
King’s strategy, Hill said, was inclusiveness — he informed the world about how the oppression experienced by the African-American community was affecting everyone directly and indirectly.
“And so, we shouldn’t miss that point,” she added. “By seeking racial inclusion and community, Dr. King was arguing that we could move ahead if we understood how we were all tied together in a single garment of destiny.”
The idea of community continues to resonate in today’s #MeToo movement, which is shedding light on the experiences of women who have been sexually harassed or abused. Hill said that when Tarana Burke coined the phrase, she made clear that she chose it to signal the start of a larger conversation to be shared among survivors and to trigger a movement of radical community healing.
“Not just individual healing, but community healing,” she said. “The kind of healing that Dr. King was talking about.”
A belief that a movement can and should reach beyond the directly oppressed was key to King’s success, and Hill said it’s just as critical today when divisiveness and isolation pose as solutions to pressing social problems.
“Maybe even more critical today, when those people argue that the way for us to move ahead in society is to separate, when in fact, divisiveness and isolation are the problems or at least the causes of many of our problems,” she said.
Hill had no idea that Americans would re-live the moment a woman had to testify before a Senate Judiciary Committee about her experiences of being allegedly sexually harassed by a then potential Supreme Court justice, and that just like in her case, he would still be confirmed.
She was candid about her feelings during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, where Christine Blasey Ford opened herself up to be criticized by politicians and strangers alike. She understood what was happening, and she felt the pain that many did at the time and lost sleep over the horrifying stories, but she also remained hopeful.
“People will say, ‘have we learned nothing since 1991?’ and I would say, ‘we have learned a lot since 1991,'” Hill said. “Maybe the leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee have not learned a lot, but we have. And I want you to rest assured that those 27 years meant something, and they are going to mean even more now that we realize how tenuous our situations can be. We will not go back.”
She said that people need to recommit to a simple idea: that women and girls are entitled to work, be educated and to live free of sexual violence.
Threats to the movement, she explained, include erasing history and denying gender violence and having a government that when presented with a chance to do better still replicates mistakes from the past. She said justice must not be rationed and that people should hold ups effective movements when they effect change. There have to be cultural changes.
“I’m confident, because I’ve seen the energy that’s out there, and we can and we will have a movement with lasting impact,” Hill said.