Yale commemorated the work and life of Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday, even as University President Richard Levin acknowledged that Yale’s past included “shameful” episodes related to slavery and race relations.
Despite these comments, the overall tone of Levin’s remarks and the day’s events were positive as students, faculty and community members discussed the way Yale and individuals here are working to realize King’s goals.
“It’s not just his memory we’re celebrating, but his activism,” student coordinator Lindsey Greene ’04 said. “He demonstrated the power to make a change.”
Levin congratulated the students who worked to make Martin Luther King Jr. Day an academic holiday and remembered himself as a 16-year-old weeping after hearing King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
“I wept because Dr. King’s vision was so self-evidently right and just, and because our nation had so far to go to make his dream a reality,” Levin said.
But Levin also talked about the August report linking Yale founders and developers to slavery. He said that rather than renaming buildings, Yale needs to “deepen [its] understanding of the history of slavery and its pervasiveness in our society.
“We need also to find ways to honor as local and national heroes those who participated in the struggle against slavery, as well as those who advanced the cause of free blacks,” Levin said.
Ward 7 Alderwoman Dolores Colon continued Levin’s discussion of Yale’s obligation to the New Haven community, especially to schools. She said a problem in New Haven is that jobs in biotechnology are going to people from out of town or to Yale graduates who stay in the city afterward, not to New Haven natives.
The day’s activities began before these speeches with a morning ceremony at Battell Chapel. Greene explained the theme of the day: leadership and the pursuit of justice.
Cynthia Johnson, co-pastor of the Black Church of Yale, said King’s dream poses a challenge to people today and cited child poverty as one of the biggest current social problems.
“Our billionaires are becoming millionaires,” Johnson said. “But the poor were poor the last decade — and will be poor next year.”
She closed with a challenge to the audience to actively follow King’s lead.
“Yes, there’s global injustice, but what is it that I am doing to make a difference?” Johnson asked.
Camille McDonald, a member of a vocal trio that performed, said the morning service was inspirational.
“They challenged everyone to bring dreams into reality and made me really think about what I want in my life,” McDonald said.
The second installment of yesterday’s program included speeches in Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall by Levin, Colon and John Johnson ’03.
The final program of the day was a talent showcase, including such groups as Shades, Steppin’ Out, Konjo and Unity.
Yale College Council President Vidhya Prabhakaran ’03 said the programs witnessed a larger turnout than last year.
“Attendance has doubled,” Prabhakaran said.
Hoang-Tuoc Le ’03, who was handing out candles for the candlelight ceremony at the end of the program, said she looked forward to the talent program.
“Lots of groups are coming together to perform from diverse backgrounds,” said Le, a coordinator of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day events.
University Chaplain Jerry Streets also spoke last night, and his message was again one of duty. In reference to the song, “We Shall Overcome,” sung by Shades last night, he told the audience that they have an obligation to continue King’s legacy.
“Your generation has the capacity to truly overcome someday,” Streets said.
Johnson, co-director of the Afro-American Cultural Center, closed the second ceremony with remarks about the meaning of the holiday.
“It is a day on, not a day off,” Johnson said. “This day is about unfinished business and work yet to be done.”