On MLK Day, music, faith, lock-in unite campus groups

Only two months after a dining-hall employee discovered a racial slur spraypainted on a wall outside Pierson College, hundreds of students, professors and local residents came together over the weekend to celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. in what several described as a markedly cohesive atmosphere.

The memory of the graffiti and other recent instances of racial prejudice on campus was matched by a strong sense of support and hope among participants, several students said. Compared with past years’, students said this year’s events — which were coordinated in concert by multiple campus groups — reflected increased unity among all the organizations involved.

The New Haven Breakdancers perform at the Peabody Museum on Monday in celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
Charles Loi
The New Haven Breakdancers perform at the Peabody Museum on Monday in celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Pamela George, assistant dean of Yale College and director of the Afro-American Cultural Center, said the focus of the weekend’s events was to promote dialogue and to foster understanding among students.

“In an effort to create more opportunity for dialogue — in the wake of these recent incidents and the incidents before this — there is always this effort to collaborate on a large scale,” she said.

Still, George said collaboration across the University has been a key component of MLK celebrations day for several years.

“Since Martin Luther King Day became a holiday at Yale after a student-initiated effort and support for the Af-Am House … it’s always been the intention to bring lots of different and diverse groups of students and departments to the table and to help organize events,” she said.

Administrators such as George, Yale College Dean Peter Salovey and University President Richard Levin have taken additional steps to support minority students following the graffiti incidents earlier in the year, said Tari Owi ’09, who serves on the student advisory board of the Af-Am House. Salovey addressed the Yale community in an e-mail a few days after the incidents, and an e-mail from Levin on Friday similarly addressed the issue of combatting racial prejudice on campus.

“The fact that we’re all conscious of [MLK Day] … is a reflection of the serious nature of the events earlier and the attitudes people have taken to [MLK Day],” Tari said. She added that the University has done an excellent job promoting the celebration in recent years.

The weekend schedule began on Friday with a presentation on the benefits of higher education for Philadelphia youth at the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale. On Saturday, students of various faiths came together at Battell Chapel for music and inspirational readings as part of the “Intercultural Reflections” program.

Sunday featured a one-woman performance from the actress Mzuri depicting the life of civil-rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer.

“It’s important to know where we’ve come from,” George said of the event, which was hosted by the Center. “We want to celebrate the life of a very powerful woman in the struggle for civil rights.”

The performance, which organizers used to remind attendees of the need to vote given the disenfranchisement of blacks during the civil rights era, provided forms for voter registration. After her performance, Mzuri showed a brief documentary on the 2000 presidential election in Florida. For American youth, she said, inspiration comes through the past.

“I think that each generation finds their own voice … through history,” she said. “Each generation stands on the shoulders of the generation before it.”

Salovey — who, along with Dean of Student Affairs Marichal Gentry, attended the performance — commended event organizers for proactively encouraging voter registration.

“I thought it was a very inspiring performance,” he said. “I think the mixture of theater and history is a very compelling way for all of us to learn.”

Several students said they not only enjoyed the educational approach to the show but also found its content energizing.

“I’m definitely more motivated to register to vote and to be more active,” Nikki Jackson ’11, who attended the event, said. “It’s really shocking that [Hamer] was such a powerful figure and was not included in the schoolbooks.”

Sunday evening, members of the Af-Am House hosted Blackout, a lock-in that drew over 50 students by midnight. Students involved in organizing the events praised University administrators and faculty for helping to raise awareness for the weekend’s events.

For the first time, publicity for the weekend’s events was organized by various groups acting together, whereas in past years, programs for the weekend were often publicized individually, Chris Williams ’08, a staff member of the Af-Am House, said.

George added that there has been increasing momentum surrounding the events for MLK day, and she said such momentum helped to make this year’s MLK program the most cohesive it has been. By building on the work of past years, organizers have learned how to most effectively publicize and reach out to more students, George said.

She also said she looks forward to the continuation of this momentum, not just in terms of the MLK celebration but also during activities throughout the year.

Monday’s offerings ranged from community service at Dwight Hall to a dinner event at Pierson College to a prayer service at Dwight Chapel. The community service included food-stamp enrollment and voter-registration projects.

In addition, roughly 100 members of the Yale and New Haven communities showed up at the Af-Am House for a faculty panel entitled “On Hope,” which featured Calhoun College Master and History professor Jonathan Holloway, black religion and theology professor Emilie Townes and Divinity School professor Andre Willis.

While each panelist shared different observations and insights about race, all gave voice to ideas of hope and change. Senator Barack Obama — who has made those two themes the centerpiece of his presidential campaign — was mentioned over a dozen times during the panel.

Townes advocated genuine, common understandings among individuals of all races and said colorblindness is a grave threat to such connections.

“Too much of what devolves from colorblindness is a sense … [that] we don’t want to recognize that difference is a value and a virtue,” she said.

On Jan. 28, the University will host a panel discussion regarding engagement between students and the New Haven community. The panel will be sponsored by the Graduate School’s Office for Diversity and Equal Opportunity.

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