Tim Tai, Senior Photographer

Across New Haven and on campus, residents and students honored the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. through events leading up to the MLK Day Commemoration on Jan. 24, during which civil rights champion Ruby Bridges will speak.

Surrounding the celebration of MLK day on Jan. 15, Yale’s MLK celebration planning committee has hosted a plethora of free events over the last three weeks, including on-campus speakers and lectures, film screenings, music, exhibitions in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and Sterling Memorial Library, slam poetry and more. These events will culminate on Jan. 24 with the visit of civil rights activist Ruby Bridges, who will give a talk titled, “Building Bridges, Breaking Barriers: The Ongoing Fight for Educational Justice.” 

We know that a diverse Yale, in every respect, is a more excellent Yale. Commemorating Dr. King and his legacy of racial, economic, and educational justice serves as a powerful reminder and inspiration,” said the 2024 MLK celebration planning committee in a statement made by Heather Calabrese, Yasmeen Abed ’23 and Committee Chair Risë Nelson. The committee is composed of staff, faculty, students, alumni and community representatives. 

Last year, the planning committee hosted its first in-person commemoration events since the COVID-19 pandemic, including Martin Luther King III as a speaker. This year marks the second consecutive year of commemoration speakers, and the planning committee has organized an additional variety of events.

One central focus of this year’s events is its proximity to history. Af-Am House Director and Assistant Dean Temeica Bethel ’11 noted the importance of acknowledging the recency of struggles for racial justice. 

“It’s crucial that we consider the recency of this history, particularly now when so much of Black history is being erased in parts of our country,” Bethel said. “In honoring MLK, we must disabuse ourselves of the idea that we are so far removed from the terrors of our past. I hope people walk away from the Ruby Bridges event, and the event with General Woodhouse last week, feeling more connected to history and inspired to continue learning.”

A member of the planning committee, Stephanie Owusu ’24 will be onstage and in conversation with Bridges during the speaking event. Owusu also noted that while some might view struggles for racial equality as ancient history, these movements are not far removed from us. 

Furthermore, Owusu said that celebrating Black History Month and honoring MLK at Yale showcases what current Black students are doing and highlights the legacies of former alumni. 

[These figures] still play an important role in how I see myself today as a Black woman attending Yale,” added Owusu.

EJ Jarvis ’23, another member of the planning committee, discussed hope and equality. Jarvis said that current events can give both New Haven residents and the Yale community a newfound sense of hope and drive for spreading Dr. King’s message.

When asked about the most important part of celebrating MLK day, Fidha Kabwita ’26 emphasized the role King’s history can play in today’s politics.

“I think the most important part is learning the history the way it was without it being white-washed,” she added.

This year’s events include a collaboration between Yale and the New Haven Free Public Libraries, where each library hosts a story-time reading of Ruby Bridges’ book, “Dear Ruby, Hear Our Hearts.” Following a visit and storytime, the children were each given a copy of the book to take home. 

Mitchell Librarians Marian Huggins and Sarah Quigley noted that their library had not done MLK-specific programming for children before this year, as their programming had traditionally been for adults. Yet, both libraries emphasized the benefits of meeting with kids to tell Bridges’ story.

“Kids have a real hunger for justice and we can really be a part of growing that,” Quigley said. 

Nelson, who grew up in New Haven attending these libraries, noted the power of pouring into the community through this collaboration. Owusu echoed the necessity of including New Haven voices, adding that it is especially important to involve students in a year when educational justice is a primary theme of MLK Day events. 

The Afro-American Cultural Center also hosted Gilder Lehrman Center Director of Education and Public Outreach Daisha Brabham in a presentation titled, “The Story We Tell Ourselves: The Long History and Fight for Black Public Education in America.” Brabham’s presentation was interactive and discussed themes of educational justice that will also be covered by Bridges.

Brabham’s talk highlighted how long ago the fight for Black public education began, discussing multiple members of Black history who fought for equal education. Brabham specifically touched on the story of five-year-old Sarah Roberts, whose father sued a white segregated school after it rejected Sarah because of her race.

Following the event, Josephine Steuer-Ingall ’24 described the talk as “really illuminating,” especially on the ties to earlier history. Steuer-Ingall further commented on the strengths of in-person events, where people can be physically present while learning this history. 

Iana Phipps ’25 added that Brabham’s presentation highlighted students’ role in demanding the right to education, noting that the fight is ongoing. 

In reflecting on the celebrations in general, Owusu said that she hopes the Yale community takes away an understanding of how MLK fought for equal education for all.

“[Dr. King’s] legacy has left an impact on the field of education … justice is where we find a lot of our solutions and the dream doesn’t end just simply with Black children and white children holding hands,” she concluded, adding that she hoped the programming would help to allow for future generations of Yalies to be able to move towards a just education … one that values all its members and includes all sides of history.”

Ruby Bridges will serve as the commemoration speaker for MLK Day in a discussion hosted by Stephanie Owusu ’24 and William Johnson at Woolsey Hall on Jan. 24 at from 5:30 p.m. 

Chris is an associate beat reporter for Student Life. He is a freshman in Morse studying Ethics, Politics, and Economics.