SALT LAKE CITY —
Karnell Black is not angry, he's not belligerent, he definitely does not come off as hostile.
And he could be. He grew up on the poor side of Dallas, raised with his two brothers by a single mom in an apartment building bordered by gangbangers shooting guns on one side and drug dealers on the other. He saw his share of discrimination and segregation as a kid. It would not be surprising if he were carrying a chip on his shoulder the size of Texas.
But either he's pulling off the best acting job this side of Colin Firth or he is what he appears to be: a friendly, accommodating, eager young college administrator who will help lead Westminster College's Martin Luther King Jr. Day festivities today not as an African-American who sees everything in black and white, but as an African-American who doesn't.
"It's a day of learning and celebrating, and it's not just for people of color; it's for everyone," says Black, 26, of the daylong events that will start at 9:30 a.m. with a program at Converse Hall, followed by a march through Sugar House to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of the March on Washington, and culminating in a schoolwide service project assembling hygiene kits for the Crossroads Urban Center.
Black points out that this, after all, is what MLK — that's how he refers to the civil rights legend — dreamed about: "All of us sitting together at the table of brotherhood."
Civil rights crusaders like Karnell Black present a different picture of "activist" these days. The movement has come a long way from boycotting the Montgomery, Ala., bus system to assembling hygiene kits at a predominately white college in Utah — and he is exhibit A.
Karnell is passionate, he's resolute, he's adamant about justice. His resumé would certainly rate a huge hug from Dr. King. He joined the Dallas chapter of the NAACP when he was a teenager. He was registering people to vote before he could vote. He got a college scholarship from Target for contributing more than 2,000 hours of community service when he was a junior and senior in high school — that's an average of 20 hours a week, and it was all voluntary, not because of a court order.
He is steeped in the history of the civil rights movement in America. He has been to the museums in the South. He has read the books. He knows it wasn't easy. He knows it still isn't easy.
But there's no edge to him, no bitterness. He arrived in Utah a year ago from Chicago, where he was on the faculty of Loyola University, his alma mater, the place where he put that scholarship from Target to good use. He got a bachelor's degree in advertising and public relations from Loyola and then a master's in higher education administration. Westminster hired him away from Loyola to assume its newly created position of assistant director of student involvement and orientation.
"I have the longest title on campus," says Karnell, who translates his duties into plain English: "I know it can be tough transitioning to college. I help students do that."
Transitioning is something he's good at. He did it at the mostly white liberal arts college in Chicago and now he's doing it at the mostly white liberal arts college in Utah — where, barely in his mid-20s, he's already "doing everything I wanted to do and more."
The message he wants to get across to young people, he says, is it's their actions that are important. "That's where young folks can make a difference," he says. "At Loyola they talked about that a lot, about doing more, being more, not just sticking with what is. The Jesuits call it Magis. That's Latin for more."
He reports he's been well-received in Utah. He's felt welcomed. He hasn't felt discriminated against.
On today's holiday that salutes such things, he'll be front and center, not in the front or in the back, but square in the middle — the best place to get things done.
Lee Benson's About Utah column runs on Monday.