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A Look at How Colleges and Universities Around the Country Plan to Celebrate MLK Day

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, colleges and universities across the country are still finding ways to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on Jan. 18 through virtual webinars, symposiums and lectures.

However, many Americans are entering the commemorative holiday with heavy hearts following the events at the United States Capitol last week.

As pro-Trump supporters raided and defaced the Capitol, many exhibited Confederate flags and anti-Semitic T-shirts. Members of the House and Senate as well as other employees were forced to evacuate and seek shelter.

Frank WuFrank Wu

Frank Wu, president of Queens College said that “he is not alone in noticing immediately that peaceful Black Lives Matter protests were met with a show of massive force while this insurrection was met with anything but that.”

“As we grieve for what was done, we can find solace in the example of Dr. King,” he added. “From Birmingham to Selma to Montgomery to Washington, D.C., he faced segregationists who were willing to do violence to him and anyone who would espouse ideals we now declare we all share. More than anything, his resilience in the face of raw racism deserves our respect by our emulation.”

Schools such as Queens College are now tying the events at the Capitol into their annual MLK commemorations.

“Dr. King’s legacy of peaceful protest brought about racial justice, and we have seen its opposite violent attacks on the seat of democracy, promoting racial injustice,” said Wu. “Such a contrast but we want people to have hope in these dark times.”

In the past, celebrations would take place at Colden Auditorium, where King once spoke during a visit to the campus in 1965.

However, this year, the event will transition to a virtual setting and feature students quoting phrases from that speech, a panel discussion highlighting King’s legacy and a video presentation focused on Queen College’s roles of activism.

“This will be a positive discussion, but a provocative one and I don’t want to shy away from how hard all of this is,” said Wu. “Dr. King was a radical in his time. … We forget there were people who opposed him, who opposed him violently, who opposed him and wanted massive resistance.”

Due to his commitment to activism, Wu wanted to be personally involved in the commemoration.

“College presidents participate in many ceremonies and sometimes our role is merely ceremonial,” Wu added. “We stand up and we wave. We read a speech that somebody else has written for us. This is different.”

At Seton Hall University, members of the campus community can participate in a one-credit workshop, “AFAM 3291: MLK Day Symposium,” at no cost.

The day-long event will feature discussions about the contributions of King, institutional racism, microaggressions, rhetoric of hatred, anti-racist behavior and privilege. Those discussions are amplified by the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many others.

“The only way we can have an honest and genuine free and open America in the future is by working on it today,” said Reverend Dr. Forrest M. Pritchett, senior adviser to the provost for diversity, equity, and inclusion and program director of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Program at Seton Hall.

Undergraduate students who register and participate are required to complete two additional essays as part of the course.

Reverend Dr. Forrest M. PritchettReverend Dr. Forrest M. Pritchett

Pritchett emphasized that in many cases, the education process can be “passive.”

“It [revolves around a] professor lecturing students who are taking notes, responding on tests and then we move forward,” he said. “Hopefully, the atmosphere we create is about creating an open, honest, frank discussion of the role of race, the role of intolerance and the role of hatred in American society. Not just in the contemporary sense, but the historical sense.”

The online nature of the event allows Seton Hall to reach a bigger audience and it was advertised outside the campus community, with the goal of reaching prospective students and their families.

“This is very timely and now, hopefully, many more people can be sitting together, having discussions in their homes throughout the day,” said Pritchett.

St. Mary’s College of Maryland will also expand upon its 17th Annual Southern Maryland Martin Luther King Jr. Prayer Celebration. Author Crystal Marie Fleming and Dr. Tuajuanda C. Jordan, president of St. Mary’s College, will offer their remarks about education, equity and service.

“There are so many different topics, that in our short time together, we’ll be able to touch on and celebrate,” said Dr. Shana Meyer, interim vice president for student affairs at St. Mary’s College. “I hope that it invigorates participants into action and I hope that we’re able to provide some inspiring and thoughtful moments as well.”

Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., Nu Zeta Omega Chapter will also be hosting a day of service. There will be opportunities to donate clothes, blankets and non-perishable food items at areas around St. Mary’s College.

At Northeast Community College, faculty and staff will hear from Ike Rayford, president of the Sioux City chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Rayford will speak about diversity and inclusion as part of professional development training sessions that will occur during the week of Jan. 18.

Additionally, in collaboration with the Mayor’s Diversity Council in the city of Norfolk, Northeast plans to host a virtual event featuring Preston Love, Jr., founder and director of the Institute for Urban Development in Omaha, as the keynote speaker.

“While still processing the events of last week, this will be an opportunity for us to gather around, engage and hear the speaker,” said Amanda Nipp, vice president of student services at Northeast CC. “And hopefully, this will be just the start of continuing the conversation on our campus about diversity and inclusion.”

His presentation, “Where is MLK?” will focus on his own experiences with activism as well as being a part of Rev. Jesse L.  Jackson’s presidential run in 1984.

Native to the state of Nebraska, Love was also an alumnus of Northeast, known as Norfolk Junior College at the time.

“He knows where we are as a state can also talk about where we are in our country,” said Nipp. “I think every state is probably in a little different place with diversity and inclusion. It is just giving us that opportunity and starting that conversation that we cannot let stop on MLK Day. It needs to continue.”

Sarah Wood can be reached at [email protected].

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