State Representative William Dyson did not have a lot of encouragement to offer the Yale College Democrats Monday night.
The 14-term representative has been advocating civil rights for over 40 years, since he was arrested in South Carolina for participating in a lunch-counter sit-in. Since then, things have not changed as much as Dyson would like. Over dinner in Trumbull College, he told students that he sees the same patterns of classism and political neglect plaguing Connecticut — and with little sign of improvement.
“Inclusivity, diversity, state politics, resources — it is all the same in terms of its application,” Dyson said. “Those who have already got get more, and those who don’t, don’t.”
The Yale College Democrats invited Dyson, who represents the 94th district, to speak about civil rights in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Fresh off a trip to Washington, D.C. to protest against war in Iraq, the Georgia native drew several examples from recent headlines to highlight the country’s continuing need for civil rights activism 35 years after King’s death.
“I have a little cynical streak to me,” Dyson warned the group of students, some of whom had heard him speak before.
No one around the table appeared to mind.
“The Representative is very entertaining and always speaks well,” said Yale College Democrats Vice President Nirupam Sinha ’05 afterward. “It’s great to hear his stories.”
U.S. involvement in Iraq is just one recent example of government action with which Dyson took issue. He also decried racism, saying that Muslims are now the target of the same bigotry once aimed at black Americans like himself, and lamented a political system which he said consistently shortchanges its poorest citizens. The University of Michigan case against affirmative action, currently before the Supreme Court, elicited particular ire.
“It’s wrong that opportunity is denied as though history never existed,” Dyson said. He added that President Bush’s pledges of support for the University of Michigan are a political maneuver calculated to influence the court and the public.
Dyson’s discussion of affirmative action was particularly relevant to the Yale College Democrats, since Sinha and President Alicia Washington ’05 reported afterward that, beginning this year, the group plans to focus on a specific political issue each month. One likely topic for February is affirmative action, with the University of Michigan case as a cornerstone of the debate.
The students gathered around the table in Trumbull’s Farr Room were interested in Dyson’s take on several other issues as well, including political machinations in Hartford and the line-up of Democratic presidential candidates for 2004.
“Which is your favorite candidate?” asked one student. Dyson was quick to respond.
“William Jefferson Clinton,” he said. Barring that, none of the major candidates inspired his unqualified support.
Dyson was first elected to Connecticut’s House of Representatives in1976. As the House Chair of the Appropriations Committee, Dyson has been a frequent participant in recent debates over state budget cuts.
Dyson encouraged students to put their energy towards political activism. At the protest march in the capital, he said, it was the young people who did the most to rally the crowds.
“If young people aren’t there with their courage, hope, vision and desire, the older people don’t have it,” Dyson said.
He said that while the lesson of Martin Luther King, Jr. and defeated Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, is, “Revolutionaries get killed off, one way or another,” an infusion of youth involvement can help stem the flow towards one-party politics and preservation of the status quo.