Fifty years after civil rights leader and activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, Yale and the city of New Haven will honor his legacy in a series of events, titled “Chaos or Community: Fifty Years Later, Where Do We Go from Here?”
The program, which began last Wednesday and will run through early February, aims to engage the wider community and reflect on how past civil rights demonstrations remain be relevant today. Activist Bree Newsome will deliver the keynote address on Wednesday Jan. 24 at Battell Chapel.
“This is a great time to reflect on [King’s] work and legacy and look at the younger generation for what type of shape social justice activism [looks] like for young people 50 years later,” said Dianne Lake ’16 LAW ’20, a member of the MLK Planning Committee and the Graduate Assistant for Intercultural & Social Justice Programming at Yale’s Afro-American Cultural Center.
According to Lake, the Martin Luther King Planning Committee — put together by the University — has this year organized events across disciplines and age groups in New Haven in order to involve as many people as possible. In addition to events hosted by the University in conjunction with the city, local organizations have planned independent events.
On Monday night, a crowd of 300 congregated at the Varwick Memorial on Dixwell Avenue to honor King’s legacy. At the event, which was hosted by local labor unions and New Haven Rising, a social justice community organization, activists praised King, while calling for unity under President Donald Trump’s administration.
Mayor Toni Harp opened the event, lauding the activism in New Haven and various events around the city dedicated to honoring King’s legacy.
“We’re here tonight to think about what it is we still need to do,” Harp said. “We’re here tonight to say to those people who want to take us back to the 1950s that we’re not going back, that we are going forward together.”
New Haven reverends and labor members of the unions Local 33, Local 34 and Local 35 spoke at the event and encouraged attendees to take action and organize.
Member of Local 33 and Ward 9 Alder Charles Decker GRD ’18 said he believed the most important lesson to take away from King’s legacy was that the only way to make change is to “stand up and take it.” Decker said that call to service convinced him to run for the New Haven Board of Alders.
“What do we — in a moment where the bosses and the Trump administration are working together to trample on the rights of people everywhere — what would King say we do? We organize, we build power however we can,” Decker said.
This past weekend, the Yale Peabody Museum hosted its 22nd annual “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Legacy of Environmental and Social Justice” event, which included a teen summit on Sunday during which participants discussed issues of race and body image.
“The impact from Dr. King’s legacy is relevant today more than ever,” said Kristi Fok, a member of the MLK Planning Committee and Community Educator at the Peabody. “It’s more of reconnecting with his issues from the past and bringing them forward so the youth can relate to it.”
A Jan. 15 exhibition at the Beinecke library, titled “Dr. King and the Long Civil Rights Movement: Holiday Exhibit,” aimed to engage audiences in a similar manner. The exhibition brought together works spanning two centuries and focusing on the African American freedom struggle and civil rights movement, including documents written by James Baldwin, Langston Hughes and King himself.
Michael Morand, a member of the MLK Planning Committee and public relations and communications director at the Beinecke, said the exhibit was not only a celebration of King’s legacy but also an invitation for visitors to explore the collections.
“King’s legacy and the truth he spoke have always been relevant,” Morand said. “There’s broader recognition of the relevance and that in difficult times people turn to history to try to understand ‘how did we get where we are’ [to] address contemporary exhibits and struggles.”
The Beinecke will continue to explore the power of artistic collaboration in the exhibition “+ The Art of Collaboration,” which will open Jan. 19 and run through April 15.
The MLK planning committee has also organized film screenings, lectures, book discussions and concerts to be held throughout January as part of the program. Risë Nelson, chair of the MLK Planning Committee and director of the Afro-American Cultural Center, said in an email to the News that she hopes these events continue to raise awareness of social justice issues.
“It is my hope that this calendar helps folks on campus and in Greater New Haven plan to join together in lifting up Dr. King’s name and be inspired to continue the fight for justice that we so desperately need today,” Nelson said.
Newsome, who will deliver the keynote address, rose to prominence in June 2015 when she removed the Confederate flag in front of the South Carolina Capitol building 10 days after a white supremacist murdered nine black members at a church in Charleston, S.C. Newsome is the founder of The Tribe, a grassroots activist organization, as well as an award winning artist and filmmaker.
“Newsome is not only empowering young people but being a symbol of resistance, inspiring and reflective and giving us the space to reimagine MLK’s legacy as something that is very real and active today, not something that is a thing in the past,” Lake said.
King spoke at Yale in 1959 and 1962 and later received an honorary degree from the University in 1964, and Coretta Scott King gave a speech on campus in 1968, four days after her husband’s assassination.
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