(U-WIRE) EVANSTON, ILL. – Just before Northwestern’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration began Monday morning, two black students joined four of their friends – an Asian-American woman, an Indian woman, a white woman and a white man.
About 1,400 students, faculty and community members gathered in five sites across campus from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. to remember, celebrateand act on King’s message of tolerance and diversity.
More than 900 of them poured into Pick-Staiger Concert Hall for a speech by Eva Jefferson Paterson, NU’s first black female Associated Student Government president, as well as performances by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and author Gwendolyn Brooks and music Professor William Warfield, who led the audience in a rendition of Lift Every Voice and Sing. Those who could not fit in Pick-Staiger were able to watch live broadcasts of the program from other campus auditoriums.
It was a terrific performance that exceeded our expectations, University Provost Lawrence Dumas said. It’s a very good sign for the future.
The spirit of the day was contagious, with organizations from For Members Only to the Medill School of Journalism sponsoring their own MLK Day events. Nine events on both the Evanston and Chicago campuses during the day were the culmination of a week of programming designed to honor King and unite NU’s student body.
This is a day, a week, a time when we are focused on (race) like a laser, Paterson said.
In a school year dominated by racial issues, it was the second major opportunity for NU students to bridge their divisions and discover their similarities. In November, NU’s first Diversity Conference drew more than 200 students for a day of discussion and debate.
It’s amazing, said Weinberg senior Manu Bhardwaj, one of the leaders in lobbying the administration to cancel classes on MLK Day. Northwestern students don’t come together very often. I’ve never seen that many students at an event at Northwestern except a sporting event.
Since early in the 1998-99 school year, Bhardwaj and other student leaders have insisted that a day off from classes would not be a blow-off day, as Bhardwaj said at an ASG meeting 14 months ago. Instead, they said it would be a way to combat NU’s apathy toward a day so important to the racial history of the United States. The administration eventually agreed to call off three hours of classes under the condition that, if attendance was low, school would be back in session next year.
For the past 21 years, NU student groups – such as King’s fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha – have held a candlelight service and forum for MLK Day. But never before had participants been as numerous and diverse as this year.
High school sophomore Anu Garla, a friend of Bhardwaj who attended the main presentation, said she will consider applying to NU because of the apparent campus diversity.
I want to go somewhere that would open me up to other cultures, said Garla, who lives in Barrington, Ill.
But Paterson, who was elected ASG president in 1970, reminded the audience that the worst still lingers – at NU and everywhere.
Racism kills, said Paterson, now a civil rights leader and lawyer in San Francisco. Racism is alive and well.
Weinberg junior Tilmann Gruber, who is black and was born and raised in Germany, echoed Paterson’s sentiments: Any major university has racial tensions. I feel them here at Northwestern by not feeling completely comfortable all the time, like when I’m in an overwhelming minority.
Paterson called on NU’s administration to be true to King’s spirit by continuing its commitment to affirmative action in admissions.
But Paterson put an even heavier burden on the students in the audience, saying they can slumber no more and must take action and reminding them of when black students stormed NU’s Bursar’s Office one month after King’s death.
Weinberg sophomore Rupa Parekh, who was in the audience at Pick-Staiger, said Paterson represents passion and spirit that is sadly absent from this school. She should come back to NU more often. Every student at Northwestern should hear her voice.
Paterson asked audience members to bow their heads and join hands with the person next to them as she offered a prayer: We should joinour hearts and souls today. This should not be an empty ceremony. When we go out of here, we need to act. Let us be transformed by being here together in love.
Weaving poetry throughout her speech, Brooks focused on the idea of fitting in. Instead of trying to conform, the 82-year-old poet said young people should strive to lead and be different. She read from a poem called I Am a Black about a young boy who wishes to be called black, not the politically correct African American.
I am a black and black forever, the poem reads.
But Paterson added that it is easy to forget that Dr. King was a man and a flawed man. Those of you who feel you can’t make a difference: If you think you’re not perfect, holy enough, remember Dr. King. Remember his humanity. He was a human just as we are.
Warfield concluded the program, narrating the I Have A Dream speech in King’s oratory style as the NU Orchestra and Chorus accompanied him.
As the rolling timpani built to a crescendo, Warfield proclaimed: Let freedom ring!-Rebecca Orbach Daily Northwestern