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Lehigh honors legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

Renowned dancer Dwana Adiaha Smallwood mesmerized the crowd at the inaugural Lehigh University Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Convocation.

The work and legacy of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and his calls for a “beloved community” were celebrated at Lehigh on Jan. 21 in song, word and spirit, kicking off the most extensive King Day celebration in university history.

Audio of King’s lesser-known speeches were played in locations around campus throughout the day, leading up the inaugural Lehigh University Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Convocation that began at 4:30 p.m. Monday in Packard Auditorium.

More than 200 members of the Lehigh community gathered to hear talks by former Lehigh student activist Leon Caldwell ’91, G’93 and Temple University African-American studies lecturer Anthony Monteiro, and enjoy performances by famed dancer Dwana Adiaha Smallwood and members of the gospel choir of the Greater Shiloh Baptist Ministry in Easton.

At the conclusion of the nearly two-hour convocation, 16 individuals were introduced by Yaba Blay, director of the Joint Multicultural Program at Lehigh, and honored with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Awards for dedication and service. For the complete list of winners, click here.

The theme of building a beloved community—often referenced in King’s oratory—was interpreted through the spoken word performance of Kashi Johnson, Lehigh associate professor of theatre; the introductory remarks by William Scott, professor of history and chair of the Africana Studies program; and the welcoming comments by Lehigh President Alice P. Gast and Alta Thornton, director of Multicultural Affairs and chair of the Martin Luther King Jr. Planning Committee.

It was also woven into the invocation delivered by Lloyd Steffen, professor of religion studies and University Chaplain, who celebrated King’s vision of a “common humanity that banished all forms of discrimination, racism and injustice,” and where the abuse of military power was shunned in favor of non-violent resolution.

“Keep in mind the challenges he put before us,” Steffen said. “And keep in mind that our failure to bring peace and justice to our fractured world is a failure not only of our will, but of our imagination as well.”

Caldwell’s spirited introduction of the keynote speaker recalled his own days as a Lehigh student, and his desire to contribute to a welcoming community for students of color.

“You have to remember,” he said, “that back when I was here, there were no Black people on campus, there was a lot of drama on campus, and there were people here at Lehigh who extended themselves to not only make sure we were here, but make sure we were comfortable here.”

So many of them, he continued, “made this institution beloved to us, and that’s the challenge that continues to be before Lehigh—to make this place beloved for everyone.”

His experiences both as a student and now educator at the University of Memphis helped crystallize a view of a beloved community, which, he says, has to cultivate an emotional connection, be steeped in truth, and respect the wisdom of its elders and the promise of its young.

“If a community doesn’t have children, young people, it dies,” he says. “It needs people, a ‘now generation’ in every institution, to seize that moment when it can change the institution. It is for us to own and for us to proclaim.”

Caldwell’s student activism at Lehigh led not only to the creation of Umoja House, but also of the Africana Studies program, which he helped develop after learning about a similar program at the University of Pennsylvania.

He cautioned those in the audience to guard against complacence and comfort.

“Our charge shouldn’t be to just be happy with what we have,” he said. “We can contribute to social justice any where we are. We often have the sense that social justice happens every where but where we are. People who want to go to Afghanistan don’t want to go to Allentown. This ‘now generation’ needs to recognize truth where it is, right now.”

“A founding father of a new America”

Temple University professor Anthony Monteiro told the audience that they must commit to understanding what Martin Luther King Jr. lived for and what he died for.

Monteiro’s talk provided both a scholarly overview of the religious and philosophical path that inspired King and an impassioned endorsement of his teachings.

“Martin Luther King was a founding father of a new America,” he said. “He used to say that, in order for America to be great, America must come to grips with its own history and embrace the best of it and rise above the worst of it. He called upon this nation to build its future based upon a moral foundation. He talked about we lead the world in science, in technology, in business and in military might. But King felt there was something missing in the American soul.”

That deficit inspired King to opt for a lifelong struggle against the most pressing problems of his day: poverty, racism, inequality, war and injustice. Those struggles, Monteiro said, were not and are not exclusive to the African-American community inspired by King.

“Dr. King said that we’re all wrapped in a single garment of destiny, and that what affects some of us affects all of us,” said Monteiro, who praised King’s courage as a “drum major for justice.”

“When he led, he knew he might not be rewarded for his efforts,” he said. “The things he fought for were the kinds of things that might get you shot, or get your house bombed.”

Dissecting the courageous speeches King made during the last year of his life—beginning with the now-famous speech in Riverside Church to announce his opposition to the Vietnam war and concluding with what was, in essence, his oratorical Last Will and Testament on April 3, 1968—led Monteiro to conclude that King recognized his personal struggle was coming to an end.

“He told us that America had become too arrogant, that we too often believed our own hype,” he said. “He used to say that we thought everyone wanted to be like us, that America thinks it has everything to teach and nothing to learn. And he called upon us to bring back the best of America. He told us there would be sacrifice and struggle. It would be a long, tough struggle, and we needed to be prepared for the long run.”

His vision of a beloved community, Monteiro said, could only come about through ecumenical unity.

“Some might argue that we’ve transcended race,” he said, “but that’s a fantasy rooted in the idea that we could move forward without a struggle.”

Those who relegate King to “old school” obscurity should remember him not only as a dreamer, but a man of action who movements for equality in all areas.

“And universities must become centers for his life and his legacy,” he said. “Too often, universities are like museums, looking backward instead of looking forward. Martin Luther King is the future of America, it is the struggle of humanity to achieve the best of itself. We must commit to understanding what King lived for and what King died for.”

--Linda Harbrecht

Posted on Tuesday, January 22, 2008

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