January 23, 2009

Students honor MLK with day of service

Students at the University of Chicago may be used to pulling all-nighters on the A-Level of Regenstein Library, but rarely do they wake up early on Saturday mornings to do manual labor. But on Saturday, more than 120 shivering students gathered at 7:30 a.m. to board school buses in honor of Martin Luther King on Chicago Cares Day, an annual Chicago community service event that attracted 4,000 volunteers citywide.

Assistant director of the University Community Center David Hays reminded students, “Make sure not just to push yourself outside your academic comfort zone,” but they clearly already were.

“I think the early morning adds to it a little bit. Everyone is there at this odd hour and is half asleep,” said Molly FitzMaurice, a first-year and member of the Community Service Leadership Training Corps (CSLTC).

After checking in at the United Center, the University team returned to Woodlawn to paint and build bookshelves at Fiske Elementary. “It’s nice that this is kind of a localized project,” said fourth-year Mark Berberian.

“It’s an opportunity to not only learn more about Martin Luther King’s legacy but also to take an active role,” said Brooke Fallon, a fourth-year who organized the University’s participation in Chicago Cares.

Chicago Cares was one of over a dozen happenings celebrating Martin Luther King Day in the weeks before and after the official holiday, with events such as film screenings, special services at Rockefeller Chapel, and performances by students at the University. An exploration of the history of black intellectuals at the university, “Integrating the Life of the Mind,” will be on display at the Regenstein Special Collections Research Center until February 27.

The keynote speech, delivered by civil-rights activist Reverend Joseph Lowery, who also delivered the benediction at the presidential inauguration ceremony, had unexpectedly low turnout, perhaps due to the inclement weather last Thursday and Friday. Past speakers have included Barack Obama, Angela Davis, and Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr.

“Unfortunately the turnout wasn’t as large as we expected or as we had had in the past,” said Rosa Ortiz, assistant director of the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs. Ortiz is the chair of the MLK Week planning committee, a committee of 28 faculty and staff from a wide range of departments.

While Chicago Cares was the only event that required an early bird mentality, the subzero weather drew those with true Chicago hardiness. A small group of Hyde Park residents dared to brave the cold on Thursday to attend a film screening of “Citizen King” at the Hyde Park Art Center.

Ortiz said that many of the smaller events were planned to allow for conversation. “We also have found that the intimate attendance allows for a more in-depth discussion,” she said.

Other groups on campus celebrated Martin Luther King day as well. On Thursday, January 8 at the School of Social Service Administration, a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Organization of Black Students (OBS) unofficially kicked off MLK events. Although the planning committee has worked with OBS in the past, for events such as Angela Davis’ keynote speech last year, the event was not part of the university’s MLK week.

The event featured Kenwood Academy’s step team Men of Distinction, spoken word by Ayesha Jaco, and artist-in-residence Kevin Coval. It drew a large crowd of both University-affiliated attendees and students and families from Kenwood Academy.

Coval emphasized the human dimension of King in his spoken word piece “No King,” which he performed. “I think it is important to remember that he was super fresh and super dope,” said Coval.

Looking at King’s legacy from a new perspective, celebrating the election of a black president, was a recurring theme throughout the week. On Sunday, guest preacher Reverend Teresa Owens, dean of students in the Divinity School, gave a sermon at Rockefeller Chapel that focused on the progress that has been made in the 40 years since King made his “I Have a Dream” speech.

“The collective power of people who believe in something larger than themselves has once again made us stand tall,” said Owens, comparing the efforts of young people during Obama’s campaign to the work her father’s generation did to support the Freedom Fighters.

The week reached its climax in Mandel Hall on Tuesday, where hundreds of students gathered to watch the live screening of Barack Obama’s inauguration. After Lowery’s benediction, Robert Gooding-Williams, Professor of Political Science at the university, and Charles Branham, Senior Historian at the DuSable Museum, discussed the inauguration with the audience.

Branham wished that the connection to Martin Luther King, Jr. had been less blatant. The emphasis made by Diane Feinstein and Rick Warren, he felt, was on Obama being black, instead of subtle allusions to the civil rights movement, as Obama often does in his speeches.