By Vanessa Persico and Alyssa Mayo
As part of Monday’s campus-wide Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebration, members of the Colgate community had the opportunity to attend everything from spoken-word performances and interactive workshops, to a candlelight procession and a speech by Dr. Rev. Bernice A. King.
Co-sponsored by the Center for Learning, Teaching and Research and the ALANA Cultural Center, the day’s events focused on living the message of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement in today’s world.
The day began with “Celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. Through the Arts,” a student-led series of performances in the chapel at noon. Contributors included seniors Sylvia Smith with an original spoken-word piece and Rodney Mason, who read an excerpt from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
The first round of workshops started at 1:00 p.m. in the ALANA Cultural Center, with Director of the Office of Undergraduate Studies Jaime Nolan facilitating “Creative Approaches to Undoing Racism Using Theater and Creative Biography.” Associate Professor of History Pete Banner-Haley led a discussion on “Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Matter of Black Leadership in the 21st Century.”
In Nolan’s workshop, she asked students to think of their first experience as a witness, a victim or an agent of racial discrimination. Students then turned these experiences into short theater pieces.
“Everybody has a story, which is really powerful,” Nolan said. “It creates the possibility for true allies to be created.”
Banner-Haley asked students participating in his discussion to address the questions of what black solidarity – a movement that came about as a response to oppression – means today, and how it can be used constructively.
There has yet to be another leader to take the place of Martin Luther King, Jr., Banner-Haley said, and asserted that there is still much work to be done both inside and outside of the black community. Banner-Haley said that Martin Luther King, Jr. would have seen the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as an example of how far the country has yet to go in terms of race and class relations. He suggested that the country has a certain tunnel-vision regarding terrorism, which prevents us from giving sufficient attention to other problems.
The second round of workshops, beginning at 4:00 p.m., was also held in the ALANA Cultural Center. Members of the African American Student Alliance (AASA) presented “Here I Am, Send Me: Effective Ways to be Leaders in College and Global Communities,” while Interim Director of the ALANA Cultural Center Monica Nixon and Interim Director of the Center for Leadership and Student Involvement James DeVita facilitated “Picturing Racism.”
The AASA’s presentation centered on their experiences at the National Black Student Leadership Development Conference (NBSLDC), which they attended over winter break.
“It wasn’t just the same workshops over and over again,” junior April Williams said of the NBSLDC. “We were able to divide and get the most out of it.”
Presenters offered tips on how to start up and/or run an organization, focusing on its history and mission. They brought up the idea of four “vectors” that should be a quarter of any group’s goals: symbolism, operational management, human resource management and socialization. Service, the final component, stems from all the rest.
“Service is important because we’re all in here together,” sophomore Marcelina James said. “You’re going to the top; take a lot of people with you.”
“Don’t take this [to mean] that this is only for multicultural groups,” sophomore Courtney Richardson added, explaining that the lessons that they learned at the NBSLDC apply to any student or professional organization.
First-year Gabby Barrow gave a presentation on self-marketing, speaking of the vitality of core values and the “elevator pitch,” a 60-second statement of who you are, what you do, and what makes you different.
Senior Rodney Mason spoke about not getting trapped in “the Colgate bubble”; problems in nearby areas can be helped by on-campus resources. Students take things such as the ALANA center for granted, he said, without ever knowing that there was a 70-hour sit-in at the Merrill House just to get it built.
Meanwhile, Nixon and DeVita instructed students and staff at “Picturing Racism” to each take a large piece of easel paper, divide it into four sections and use the sections to illustrate a time when he or she recognized his or her race, a time when he or she recognized someone else’s race, a time when he or she acted as a racial ally for someone else and a time when he or she failed to act as a racial ally.
Fifteen minutes later, the attendees broke up into groups of four or five and chatted very frankly about their own racially-based experiences. They then opened up into a larger circle and discussed why they, and others, acted the way that they did in certain race-related situations.
“This at least brushes the surface of getting students to think about race … it’s very personal,” DeVita said.
At 7:00 p.m., a crowd of about 20 gathered just outside the ALANA cultural center and began a candlelit march to the chapel led by the Sojourners Gospel Choir, singing civil rights anthems such as “This Little Light of Mine” and “We Shall Overcome.”
By the time they arrived at the chapel, students, faculty, staff and Hamilton residents were already flowing in to attend the evening’s program of events.
The three winners of Hamilton Central School’s “Letters to Dr. Martin Luther King” essay contest each stood before the crowd and read their essays, though not without some trepidation: before taking the stage, seventh-grader Valaya Lalonde scanned the audience nervously and lamented quietly, “Why are there so many people here?”
In her essay, Lalonde emphasized the importance of understanding and kindness. Eighth-grader Ken Quackenbush spoke of the power of fighting for what is right, regardless of personal consequences. Eighth-grader David Schutt pointed out that racism has no place in the mission to end poverty. All three returned to their seats amid rousing applause.
University President Rebecca S. Chopp introduction outlined the many accomplishments of Dr. Rev. Bernice A. King.
After a performance by the Sojourners Gospel Choir, during which the audience stood and sang along to “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” Dr. Rev. Bernice A. King, youngest daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr., came to the podium and began her speech.
“You’re quiet in more than a thousand languages,” she said. “But we’re gonna see if we can loosen you up tonight.”
King compared the world to a boat: if there is a crisis or a hole in one part of the boat, perhaps that side sinks first, but the entire boat goes down with it soon enough. The holes in today’s world, she said, are the same as the “triple evils of poverty, racism and militarism” that her father decried in the 1960’s.
“We are still grappling with these issues … we will continued to be infected with these evils and their offspring,” she said.
The overall thrust of King’s speech was that human beings today are not living up to their economic, social, moral or spiritual potential. She said that if God were to speak to mankind today, the message would run something like: “You are living too low. It’s time to come up to a higher plane.”
“If you’re gonna raise the standard,” she said, “You can’t say one thing to a group of your friends and do a whole other thing behind closed doors…you have to be congruent: your mind, your body, and your spirit!”
She encouraged students to “be misfits” and not to worry about being popular or accepted, but rather to look at the big picture.
King also issued a blistering indictment of today’s endless cycle of economic survival.
“When you graduate from school,” she said, “If you don’t shift your mindset, you’re gonna get caught up in what we all got caught up in: bedroom, bathroom, kitchen table, job, kitchen table, bathroom, bedroom, job. You will become so consumed in this cycle that you won’t have time to make a difference. In many respects, there is a new form of slavery called debt.”
She continually returned to the idea of a higher spiritual calling.
“For indeed,” she said, “it is a mistake if you just approach life with your five senses. It will be a tragedy for us to live, go to work and die. God did not bring you through millions of sperm just to this.”
Her advice to students who wish to affect change in the world was to get together with others who dream of the same changes. She reminded the audience that, throughout history and around the world, it has been the students of a given society that create the most waves and cause the most stir.
“It was students just like you who risked something,” she said of the civil rights movement. “As long as young people accept things the way they are, they will remain.”