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MLK planners aim for year-long attention on social justice

Lehigh’s annual week-long celebration of the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. is being upgraded to a year of active reflection and conversation about the causes for which the late civil rights leader gave his life.

In previous years, groups of staff, faculty and students planned a series of events in mid-January to honor King. The week-long celebration of events has included prominent speakers, an inter-faith breakfast, a convocation on campus, and programs with schools and community groups.

This year’s planning committee, under the direction of Tyrone Russell, director of multicultural affairs, and Lloyd Steffen, professor of religion studies and university chaplain, is aiming to engage the university community throughout the academic year.

“It’s not just a celebration for a week,” Russell says. “It’s more effective to institutionalize these beliefs across our campus in different forums and in ongoing conversation. We want to look at all ways to engage—across the campus and with local groups—and we want to find ways to look at what’s happening at the national level and make those issues relevant for our campus community.”

In addition to bringing in speakers, Russell hopes to draw on the expertise of faculty and others to “lead in sharing information, in drawing on different viewpoints, and encouraging examination of issues that impact all of us.”

Steffen said the MLK committee wants to support and lead efforts that encourage a more inclusive and respectful campus environment.

“A central focus of programming efforts,” he adds, “will be the criminal justice system, which the civil rights movement never touched. How it functions as a system of racial control is not well understood, yet critics are calling it a legalized system of racial injustice. We need to learn about it and address it. Many of us are convinced that were King alive today, this is where he would be putting his efforts to build a ‘beloved community’.”

Forming alliances across campus

To that end, Russell and Steffen want to work with academic departments and student groups. Planned events will also include cooperating with the Bethlehem and Allentown school districts to bring 150 to 200 high school students to campus, and with Northampton Community College to offer expertise and assistance in planning their MLK celebration in February.

Among the first events on the Lehigh campus will be a panel discussion on the case of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed Florida teen who was shot by George Zimmerman, a member of the neighborhood patrol in the gated community where Martin’s father lived. Zimmerman, who was acquitted following a trial in mid-summer, based his defense on Florida’s “stand your ground” laws.

“Trayvon Martin, Race and Justice,” will be held at 4:10 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 16, in STEPS 101. The panel will include James Peterson, professor of English and Africana Studies; Monica Miller, professor of religion studies and Africana Studies; Dominic Packer, professor of psychology, and Matthew Melone, professor in the Perella department of finance and law in the College of Business and Economics. Steffen will moderate the panel.

Panel members will discuss the “stand your ground” law, the role of guns in American society, racial profiling, hate crimes and Zimmerman’s acquittal.

Russell and Steffen say the MLK committee is working to convert itself into a resource that brings faculty, staff and students together to teach, learn and plan action around social justice issues.

“We will still do a major event in January,” says Steffen, “The committee effort to bring together activism and the arts will engage the Lehigh community during our national celebration of King’s life and legacy.”

In addition to Russell, Steffen, Peterson and Miller, MLK Committee members include Gordon Moskowitz, psychology professor and department chair; Silagh White, director of arts engagement and cultural affairs; Allyson Baer ’12, a graduate student in comparative and international education; Brenda Martinez ’15, a journalism major and founder of Dream and Act LU; Karl Brisseaux ’11, communications associate and a graduate student in American Studies, and Linda Harbrecht, director of communications.

Story by Linda Harbrecht

Posted on Tuesday, October 15, 2013

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