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More Than 'I Have a Dream'

Northwestern celebrates the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.

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January 17, 2011 | by Wendy Leopold

Listen to Highlights of Tavis Smiley's Remarks

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Talks by popular TV and radio host Tavis Smiley, Interfaith Youth Core founder Eboo Patel and former Chicago Urban League President and CEO Cheryle Jackson as well as a staged reading of a play about a young girl growing up in the South during the civil rights struggle were among the inspiring events marking Northwestern University’s observance of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday yesterday (Jan. 17).

Smiley – an outspoken voice for change and author of “The Covenant with Black America” – discussed King’s legacy as being all about love, a love, he said, that was all about truth and a truth that, before Dr. King died, made many people quite uncomfortable.

In thanking the rapt audience that packed Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, Smiley noted that Northwestern’s MLK celebration is well known on the lecture circuit for its seriousness and quality.

Smiley referred to King as the greatest American this country has ever produced, stressing that he was a prophet who was much “more than a dreamer.” He should not be remembered only for “I Have a Dream” and “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top,” he said, though they are great speeches that deserve their exalted place in American history.

“Every one of us should be unsettled at the mention of [King’s] name,” said Smiley. “If we are seriously trying to be ‘Kingian’ in our own lives, to appropriate [King’s] behavior [and] his ethos, then we have a lot of work to do…We’ve become so disconnected from love in the public discourse that the country is stuck.”

After his address, Smiley took questions from Medill School of Journalism junior Ngozi Ekeledo. “When I say love all I mean is this: that everybody is equally worthy ‘just because.’ That’s what King believed [because] everybody is somebody’s child.”

On the Chicago campus, Patel spoke of King’s own religious journey and how it can help us think anew about seemingly intractable religious conflicts today. He described how King’s civil rights movement primarily focused on the color line but ultimately expanded freedom for any group that found itself marginalized. Today, Patel said it has extended to religion. “Our world today is rife with religious conflict and tension.”

A Muslim, Patel sees this time in history as an opportunity for Muslims. “We have the right not just to speak primarily of our suffering, but of God’s breath in every human being,” said Patel, a former member of President Obama’s Advisory on Faith-Based Neighborhood Partnerships. We have a chance to expand freedom for everybody.”

At a moving, early evening candlelight vigil, remarks by Northwestern alumna and trustee Jackson and songs sung by the Alice Millar Chapel Choir, Northwestern Community Ensemble and a student a cappella group warmed the crowd in Alice Millar Chapel. Like Smiley, Jackson linked King's greatness to telling uncomfortable truths that needed to be heard. Such honesty, she stressed, needs to be applied to the big problems we face today. The struggle for truth and the ease of going against the status quo becomes increasingly difficult with age, she noted, and, addressing the youthful audience, she closed her remarks with a call to take action now. 

As in the past, music played an integral role in the Northwestern MLK celebration. The University Chorale, the Northwestern Community Ensemble and the Jazz Small Ensemble all performed at the Pick-Staiger event, which included a welcome from both Northwestern Provost Daniel I. Linzer and City of Evanston Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl.

A group of Evanston middle school students were special guests at the noon Pick-Staiger event. The youngsters were paired with Northwestern student mentors, saw a film about the Rev. King at Norris University Center and took part in activities at the Center for Leadership.

The staged reading of Evanston playwright Clunie’s award-winning play “North Star,” attracted children and adults to the Evanston campus. The reading was the takeoff point for a post-performance discussion about the play’s civil rights themes and was led by Clunie and theatre professor Reeves Collins.

In fact, Northwestern activities honoring the Rev. King began even before the official holiday. To celebrate his commitment to community building, some 130 students participated Saturday, Jan. 15, in an MLK Day of Service that took them to Evanston and Chicago neighborhoods. A Pro Bono and Community Service Fair on the Chicago campus provided volunteer opportunities with a Chicago food pantry, Little Brothers-Friends of the Elderly and other groups.

 “Dream Week,” sponsored by Northwestern School of Law and the Feinberg School of Medicine on the Chicago campus, featured a children’s art contest, lunchtime talks and panel discussions and a keynote address by attorney Salvador Cicero, winner of a 2011 DREAM Award for sustained commitment to social justice and equality.

All day and evening classes were cancelled on both Northwestern campuses for a full-day, University-wide observation of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

Topics: Campus Life