Vincent Bacote’s arrival in Dubuque followed an anonymous letter suggesting that the theologian wasn’t welcome.

The letter included a newspaper clipping about Bacote’s upcoming Dubuque appearance and “it was filled with really stupid, anti-black stuff,” said the Rev. Tim Bees, master of ceremonies for the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday Celebration held Monday at Grand River Center.

The event drew more than 250 people, according to organizers.

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The keynote speaker at the event, Bacote discussed ways to lessen the feelings of agitation coursing through society, including what he called “rehumanizing” the people who don’t share similar viewpoints.

“Everybody wants real friends, long on patience and forgiveness,” said Bacote, a professor at Wheaton (Ill.) College. “Even the worst online trolls want that. Even the person who trolled me the old-fashioned way, with that letter.”

Bacote discussed three other approaches to lessening agitation, including taking stock of the historical gains made in society, working to create solutions to society’s problems rather than simply describing them, and mobilizing faith communities to continue cultivating better people who can improve society.

“People aren’t right with themselves — people are all just unsettled — and the agitation is all around us,” Bacote said. “There are ways forward in these times of agitation. I believe antidotes are available.”

One antidote Bacote proposed was having an accurate perspective of society’s current conditions.

“It’s not the worst it’s ever been,” he said. “This year is the 400th anniversary of the first slave being brought to what is North America, and slavery was followed by Jim Crow until 1964 or 1965. For most of the history of the United States, it’s just been normal to oppress people who look like me, but it has gotten better. We’re not where we need to be, but some things have improved.”

Social media interaction on smartphones and computers that triggers angry responses and deepens society’s feelings of agitation also can improve, Bacote said.

“We need to pause and ask ourselves questions about the people we only encounter on that screen,” he said. “People are so much more than that social media post. Dr. King said the goal wasn’t to defeat the opponent. It was to defeat the issue and befriend the person.”

Bees said the first thing Bacote did upon receiving his recent piece of angry mail “was to pray for the person.”

Loras College students Dwayne Emilus, 19, of Ft. Myers, Fla., and Reis Ginter, 18, of Chicago, said they were impressed by Bacote’s message.

“I thought it was interesting how he talked about the way kids spend a lot of time on social media and how we aren’t knowing that other person (on the other side of the screen),” Emilus said.

Ginter said Bacote discussed how improving race relations is a continuing process.

“He talked about how we’re not there yet, but we’re making progress,” Ginter said. “Kids really need to hear that message.”