Lionel Jin

Speaking at the Yale Peabody Museum Sunday afternoon as part of a celebration of Martin Luther King Jr., Mayor Toni Harp put the spotlight squarely on persistent inequalities in access to health care and education, and called on the city to take up King’s legacy.

Harp’s speech headlined the Peabody’s weekend of events celebrating King’s legacy of environmental and social justice. Featuring a Teen Summit led by motivational speaker Hashim Garrett, the Zannette Lewis poetry slam and various cultural performances, the weekend’s events drew a crowd of close to 5,000. In a surprise appearance, Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy made a stop at the museum during Harp’s speech.

“Dr. King devoted his life to eliminating the discrimination and the resulting prejudice against those who are different,” Harp said. “Today, we are called upon to renew our commitment to that ideal and to continue to make Dr. King’s dream a reality.”

Practices that separate parts of our community and that isolate certain people because of their color, gender and disability remain common, Harp said. Access to health care and education remain unequal, she added.

Harp observed that even with the Affordable Care Act, many lack health care coverage and access to health care services. African-Americans and other minorities are more likely to die of cancer and heart disease than the average American, she said.

In New Haven’s schools, differences in access to technology have contributed to a “digital divide” that prevents disadvantaged students from succeeding, Harp said. She added that policies that send students into the streets of New Haven when they misbehave make matter worse.

It falls to each of us to continue King’s legacy of peaceful yet active engagement and to work to remove those barriers, Harp said. The Mayor’s Office is working to open health and dental clinics in schools, introduce computers into schools and help suspended kids return to the classroom.

“Young people have enormous power when they decide to speak up,” Murphy told the audience.

Recalling his own early start in politics and evoking King’s youthful activism, Murphy said, “I know the difference kids can make. Dr. King knew the difference kids can make.”

He encouraged students and faculty to find big and small ways to get to know New Haven and to get involved in the community.

The Peabody Museum has organized this annual event for the past 20 years to get locals thinking about environmental justice, and more broadly about social justice, Peabody Museum Events Coordinator Josue Irizarry said.

“We are in a time right now where we are having conversations around the country and really around the world about equity and justice, and this is a valuable place to have that forum,” David Heiser, head of education and outreach at the museum said, adding that institutions like the Peabody have the responsibility to embrace a the history of the earth and its cultures.

The museum offered free admissions to its exhibits and to the weekend’s events on Sunday and on Monday. The public responded in force, with hundreds filling the auditorium and the Great Hall of Dinosaurs.

“This is a wonderful event,” Murphy said. “It achieves the dual purpose of honoring Dr. King’s legacy and opening up the museum to kids and families who would otherwise not have been able to come.”

This was the first year that the mayor of New Haven has delivered a speech at the event.