On Monday, the College community celebrated the life and legacy of prominent civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. Events including video showings, lectures and speeches were held throughout the day, all of which were centered around the theme of King’s classic quotation, “An injustice anywhere is a risk to justice everywhere.” The events aimed to reaffirm not only the lessons of history and past actions but also the persisting need for activism and efforts toward change.
The day began with a series of video projects on issues of social injustice and activism presented in Paresky. The videos tackled a broad spectrum of issues and took on various formats, ranging from a hand-drawn animation on the educational system to a documentary on racial tensions.
The projects were temporarily stopped around 3 p.m. for a lecture by Associate Professor of History Leslie Brown titled “So, Who is This Martin Luther King?” Brown began her speech with comparisons between the social and political environment of King’s time and those of ours, mentioning issues such as “persistence of political violence” and social segregation. According to Brown, the status quo resembles the society of King’s times in many ways: People are still shot down when they stand up, and ghettos have been replaced by “the hood.”
The lecture then focused on who King really was – a militant pacifist who strived to create tension as means for change. Brown emphasized the effort King had put into fighting social injustices, such as organizing the Poor People’s March and anti-war movements, both of which he had been working on when he was assassinated in 1968. According to Brown, contemporary views on King often overlook his works and thoughts in order to avoid the controversy and tension that would follow them. “We think about the dream, not what this guy was talking about,” Brown said.
During the open discussion that followed her lecture, Brown urged the younger generation, including the College’s student body, to fight off apathy and complacency and take a more active role in tackling injustices, just as King had done.
The keynote address of the day, titled “Martin Luther King as Us: the Ghetto Portraits,” was given later that day by Camilo Vergara, a photographer who has documented various inter-city murals. Vergara’s speech, accompanied by a presentation of the murals, explained how images of King have been used in different meanings with different contexts. “I am not an expert of Martin Luther King,” Vergara said, “but I am an expert of the murals of Martin Luther King.” Vergara’s speech offered an opportunity to look at King not as an historical figure frozen in time but as a window into contemporary social relations, a figure that reflects the status quo and its dynamics.
In general, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day events dealt with King as a figure very much relevant to social problems today instead of just a historical figure to be commemorated one day and forgotten the rest of the year. “The theme was central in organizing the day’s event,” said Liliana Rodriguez, director of the Multicultural Center (MCC). “The events were focused on social injustice because that’s what Dr. King said. That’s what the quote we have there in Paresky says. ‘An injustice anywhere is a risk to justice everywhere.’ Injustice is pervasive; it spreads.”
Rodriguez mentioned how the events focused on getting the student body to actively participate in the day. “Not many people have turned up to events like these because they had to come to the events,” she said. “So instead, we try to make the events come to the people. We had the videos going on at [Paresky] all day [so] that people got interested about what was going on, and there were a lot of people around the time of Professor Brown’s lecture.” Rodriguez also made clear that the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day’s events would be the first of many such events that intend to raise social awareness and participation among the student body.