William Dyson challenged black students at Yale to tackle key social issues affecting Connecticut such as overcrowded prisons and capital punishment in his keynote address at Yale’s annual Black History Month dinner held in Calhoun College Friday evening.

The dinner, co-sponsored by the Afro-American Cultural Center, Calhoun College and Goldman Sachs, kicked off a string of events throughout the month to celebrate black history and culture.

The program opened with a moment of silence to honor Ozzie Davis, the actor known for roles dealing with racial injustice who died had earlier that day. University Chaplain Frederick Streets recited the Langston Hughes poem “I Too Sing America” to set the tone for the evening.

In his speech, Dyson, a New Haven Democrat, told the more than 100 students in attendance that in 20 years they will be at the height of their careers and will be expected to “do things” for society.

“If you take a stance in what you believe, you — each and every one of you — can make a difference,” Dyson said.

He talked about his experience as an undergraduate at Morris College in Sumter, S.C., during the beginning of the civil rights movement when he feared for his life and his family during sit-ins.

“You must work through your fear, because fear lets you know you’re alive,” Dyson said.

As the sophomore class president at Morris, he thought he had a responsibility to represent his classmates at sit-ins and his participation in the movement launched him into politics.

Dyson also discussed his current efforts to bring the issue of capital punishment to the forefront of Connecticut politics in light of the planned execution of Michael Ross, a serial killer who murdered eight women in the 1980s. Ross’ execution would end nearly 45 years of suspended capital punishment in the state.

“I did that because it was important to me,” said Dyson, who recently wore a protest sign around his neck that asked for debate in the state capitol to keep his fellow representatives from avoiding the issue.

He segued from the issue of capital punishment to the nation’s overcrowded prisons, telling audience members that it costs taxpayers more money to incarcerate people than to educate them. Dyson said that to help criminals integrate into society they would need housing and job training.

“You tell me what type of future one can get with the word ‘felon’ across your forehead,” Dyson said.

Dyson received a standing ovation from the audience after his speech. Yale Associate Vice President for New Haven and State Affairs Michael Morand publicly thanked Dyson for helping the city’s disenfranchised residents, improving mental health care to low-income patients, increasing funding to public schools and spreading arts and culture to neighborhoods across the state.

Stephen Cockrell ’06, the co-moderator of the Black Students Alliance at Yale, said he thinks the dinner event was a “tremendous success.”

“Rep. Dyson was remarkable, as he usually is, and truly inspirational,” Cockrell said.

Calhoun College Master William Sledge described Dyson, his friend, as a modest man.

“Bill wants to be the center of attention in another way, by standing up for his principles,” Sledge said.

Assistant Dean Pamela George, director of the Afro-American Cultural Center, said she thinks Dyson represents the social conscience that students at Yale “need to hear more often.”

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