Diversity, community involvement among values stressed to packed Graham Chapel

| News Editor
Genevieve Hay | Student Life

Washington University junior Michelle Hall delivers the student keynote address at the 2013 Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemoration in Graham Chapel on Monday, January 21.

In his final year of high school four years ago, senior Andreas Mitchell attended his first Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration alongside his father, who grew up in segregated West Virginia. As the audience chanted the words to “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” recognized as the African-American National Anthem, Mitchell’s father started sobbing so vigorously that he could not continue. Earlier in his own lifetime, the community of distinguished black professionals surrounding him was but a distant dream.

“It was at that point and after talking to him afterwards that I really came to understand that these are not legacies that are in some distant past—these are things that persist today,” Mitchell said.

Speakers at the University’s 26th annual Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration held Monday in Graham Chapel carried a message of “hope in action,” the theme of this year’s ceremony.

Chancellor Mark Wrighton, the ceremony’s first speaker, addressed the relationship between the University’s “Leading Together” fundraising campaign and its aims to improve gender balance, diversity and inclusiveness.

Keynote speaker Adrienne Davis, the University’s vice provost for diversity and a professor in the School of Law, emphasized the need for hope combined with action when facing current social justice issues. In her speech, she cited the Arab Spring, the LGBT rights movement, women’s rights in India and immigrant rights, in addition to discussing lasting racial disparities in wealth, housing and employment.

“Today is a day that we honor the ever-broadening coalition inspired by the civil rights movement,” Davis said.

Junior and featured student speaker Michelle Hall emphasized the urgency of action.

”We cannot wait for tomorrow because tomorrow is too late,” Hall said. “If Martin Luther King had waited for tomorrow, where would we be today?”

Hall’s speech recognized the addition of an African-American Studies professor to tenure track and the #MyJihad campaign of the Muslim Students Association, which aims to reclaim the meaning of the term “jihad” from its frequent association with terrorism, as positive developments.

In an interview with Student Life, Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration Committee Chair Harvey Fields pointed to several examples of progress on campus, including Davis’ work to increase the diversity of Washington University professors. More people of color have been hired in the engineering department and more female professors placed on tenure track, Fields said.

The ceremony, though, was more than a reflection on progress within the Washington University bubble.

During the commemoration, Melvin White and Beloved Streets of America were presented with The Rosa L. Parks Award for Meritorious Service. Beloved Streets of America is a St. Louis grassroots organization that works to rejuvenate the numerous roads nationwide bearing the name of King, many of which have become centers of crime and abandoned or decaying property.

Fields called it a unique selection, since the Parks Award is normally awarded to people with more extensive lifetime achievement, such as Chancellor Emeritus William Danforth and Judge Jimmie Edwards, who founded Innovative Concepts Academy, an alternative school for juvenile delinquents. But Fields and other members of the committee were intrigued by the opportunity to bring recognition to a more “fledgling organization.”

Senior Freeman Word has been involved with Beloved Streets of America since the summer, when the organization did not have even a website or office space. He developed interest in the organization and other grassroots groups like the Organization for Black Struggle and Gateway Green because their members are also residents in the communities in which they operate.

Speaking about Martin Luther King Jr., Word urged students to remember the civil rights leader as he was and not adjust narratives to fit more pristine imaginations.

“There are a lot of people who clap when King’s name is mentioned, but who otherwise would be either unfamiliar or uncomfortable with the man if presented with him in the present,” he said. “We have a special duty to remember his legacy…as he was, which was as a radical and someone who was speaking change and opposition to popular, status quo societal forces.”

Architecture professor and longtime St. Louis community activist Bob Hansman, who also has been involved with White and Beloved Streets of America, called upon members of the University community to tackle issues beyond their immediate surroundings.

“It’s very easy, especially for sort of post-civil rights people, who have historical blinders on, to go, ‘Oh, look how far we’ve come. We’re celebrating Martin Luther King; we’re putting Barack Obama in for the second time—everything is great,’” Hansman said. “And I think if you only look at what’s going on in academia, what’s going on in the Wash. U. campus and what’s going on in the White House, you’re going to get one impression of what’s going on in the country.

“But all you have to do is go down to the projects, go to North St. Louis, and you go, ‘Geez, what’s [happening] on campus with diversity and what’s happening in the White House are all but irrelevant to what’s going on with the rest of the culture.’”

Hansman labeled discussion of diversity within the campus community alone “empty talk” unless more widespread problems of de facto segregation and inequality are addressed.

“I don’t think enough people get angry on Martin Luther King Day,” Hansman said. “And I’m not advocating denying how far we’ve come, but there’s a point at which we get a little bit complacent.”

Mitchell believes that the University community can always be more inclusive. However, he is encouraged by the overall campus consciousness toward diversity and social justice.

“Our campus is more engaged than meets the eye,” he said. “I’m always surprised.”