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National Women's March Leader Calls For Unity Amid Scrutiny Over Her Ties To Controversial Figure

Security presence was higher than usual for last night's Martin Luther King Junior keynote address at the University of North Carolina Asheville.  The speech by Women's March co-president Tamika Mallory was overshadowed by controversy that’s caused factions within the national movement.

Mallory has been dealing with fallout for her association with Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam. Last February, she attended an event where Farrakhan delivered a speech making inflammatory statements about Jews. Mallory has denied accusations that she’s an anti-semite.

An hour before Mallory’s address, uniformed police officers posted up outside the Lipinsky building on campus. A small group of protestors gathered by the entrance. Security guards waved metal detector wands as visitors entered the building. Inside the auditorium, nearly all 580 seats were filled.  

Once Tamika Mallory stepped up to the lectern, she quickly addressed the apparent controversy encircling her visit.  “You all know the story, so I won’t act like you don’t know that there’s an elephant in the room. It’s been a rough road getting to this spot that I’m standing right now, but I’m proud that we found a way to be here and be together,” Mallory said.

Mallory took the stage less than a week after the national Women’s March. This year, several marches in cities like Chicago were canceled, due to the fallout from her ties to Farrakahn. Several organizations and student groups petitioned UNC Asheville to cancel her appearance.  “While most of the credible leaders, sponsors and supporters of the Women’s march are pulling away from the movement due to the founder’s anti-semitic views and opinions, the UNC schools seem to be one of the rare entities embracing them,” Liora Rez, director of the Center for For Combating Hate in America, said in a statement.

A few hours before her speech, Mallory met with students and leaders representing the local Jewish community.  “Having met with her today, shaken her hand. I don’t believe she’s an anti-Semite,” Frank Goldsmith, who’s on the board of Carolina Jews for Justice, said. “I think it’s illusory for people to put that label on her, based upon an association with Farrakhan.”

Frank says during their meeting, Mallory showed remorse for the hurt Farrakhan's divisive rhetoric has caused.  “I think we owe her the respect of listening to her and reflecting on the arrogance that it takes to try tell this woman of color, who’s a national leader, how she should express herself. I don’t think that’s our place to do,” Goldsmith said.

During her speech, she drew parallels to Martin Luther King, Jr., who was derided as a communist and was accused of inciting violence.  “We forget that at various times during the civil rights movement, Dr. King was called ‘public enemy number one,’” Mallory said. “People villainized him.”

Sumayah Haynes, a sophomore studying international studies, attended Mallory’s speech...even though she has to wake up early for an 8am class.  “She spoke in terms of unity, and when it comes to intersectionality, it’s cool to come from different points of view,” Haynes said.  

Haynes adds, the message is significant in her own life, navigating her identity as a black Muslim woman.  “Or, like people trying to put you in a box. It’s very important for us to come together and realize we have more similarities than differences,” Haynes said. “Even with civil rights, there were asians involved with civil rights and we don’t talk about that.”

She says she hopes people keep talking and perhaps more importantly -- listening.