On the third Monday of every January, the United States pauses to remember the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights activist, minister and hero whose work and leadership has had a lasting impact on American history. Assassinated in 1968 at the age of 39, MLK Day was established as a federal holiday in his honor in 1986, though it was not officially recognized by all 50 states until 2000.
Over the course of this week, institutions and organizations across the country sponsored events to celebrate the life of King, as the words of his “I Have a Dream” speech continue to inspire generations of Americans to strive towards a brighter future for our nation. In light of the events that transpired in 2020 and the beginning of 2021 with systemic racism in the United States being brought to greater public consciousness, the work and message of King are all the more necessary to reflect on.
The Office for Diversity and Inclusion hosted the 2021 MLK Jr. Living Legacy Convocation, attended by more than 500 people from UConn and the greater community, to discuss the legacy of King through the lens of 2021.
Eboni S. Nelson, dean and professor of law at UConn School of Law welcomed the participants, emphasizing the importance of King’s words and actions in the context of current events.
“…We are living in times similar to those experienced by Dr. King in which many people are angry, sad, exhausted, anxious, fearful and worried about what the future may hold for them, their loved ones, their communities and our country.”
“Notwithstanding yesterday’s historic inauguration,” Nelson said. “We engage in this reflection at a time when the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism expose and exacerbate the disparities that exist in our country. We are living in times similar to those experienced by Dr. King in which many people are angry, sad, exhausted, anxious, fearful and worried about what the future may hold for them, their loved ones, their communities and our country.”
The evening included a land acknowledgement provided by Sage Phillips, a fifth-semester political science and human rights student and member of the Penobscot Nation, as well as a spoken word selection performed by Carl Dean, Student Support Services Assistant Director.
President Thomas Katsouleas spoke following a video presentation created by UConn students, faculty and community members, advocating for change in our institution and society.
“While we are committed to taking part in this national conversation,” Katsouleas said, “We understand that discussion alone is not enough. Dr. King, after all, was not merely an eloquent speaker, he understood that words without action accomplish nothing, and only serve to prolong the problem they are directed against.”
Katsouleas spoke specifically about his duty to the UConn community to amplify the voices of Black students and scholars as a means to foster an anti-rascist environment.
“As President of the University of Connecticut, to model anti-rascist behavior and to lead the university community in committing ourselves to dismantling white supremacy, racism in all its forms, as it exists in our society and our university.”
“It is my commitment,” Katsouleas said. “As President of the University of Connecticut, to model anti-rascist behavior and to lead the university community in committing ourselves to dismantling white supremacy, racism in all its forms, as it exists in our society and our university.”
The event’s keynote speaker, Dr. Ibram Kendi, spoke to the topic of the night: “How to be Antiracist? Implications for Individuals, Institutions and Society.” Kendi is a renowned scholar and author whose published works have won numerous awards and recognitions nationwide. His long list of accolades include being named one of Time’s Most Influential People of 2020.
Kendi spoke to the life and legacy of King whose bright optimism of 1963 significantly diminished towards the end of his life. Kendi said, “[King’s] dream turned into a nightmare,” as the late 1960s were characterized by riots and uproar from Black Americans who continued to struggle under a systemically racist society despite the progress made by the Civil Rights Movement.
“Over the past 50 years,” Kendi said. “The nightmare has continued. Whenever we celebrate King, we don’t want to talk about the nightmare, we only want to talk about the dream, we only want to talk about progress that indeed has happened for some individuals since the 1960s.
“We are living through the nightmare as much as we are living through King’s dream,” Kendi said. “We can no longer claim his dream of progress, of racial progress, of anti-racist progress, is us, is America; then simultaneously claim his nightmare of racist progress, like we saw on display at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 is not us, is not America. The dream and the nightmare is America, is part of us.”
Kendi concluded by reminding all to continue to fight for an equitable nation and to fight for the America of King’s dream.
“King tells us so long as we continue to believe change is possible, it will never die, so long as we keep alive the beautiful struggle,” Kendi said.