This year marks the 52nd anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and the 35th year of Vanderbilt’s MLK Commemorative Series to honor his legacy of fighting for justice. Vanderbilt students connected with this year’s theme “The Power of Storytelling: Our Stories Connect Us” through attending on- and off-campus events.
The weekend began with a kickoff event at the Bishop Joseph Johnson Black Cultural Center (BCC) Friday, Jan. 17. The event included food, speeches, a litany and a performance by Melanated A Cappella.
“It was a very significant event for us because I felt we’re showing that despite what we might be going through and despite MLK having died quite a while ago, his passion and the things that he stood for are still prevalent today, and though he might be gone, his ideals aren’t gone,” Melanated member Joezer Pascal said.
Melanated performed “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which is commonly referred to as the Black National Anthem.
Emmy Award-winning visual artist James Threalkill gave the kickoff keynote address.
Threalkill (’79) is responsible for projects such as the Gateway to Heritage Mural at the I-40 underpass.
He shared a bit of his own story and encouraged students to keep MLK’s dream alive by using education as an opportunity to impact societal change.
JOINT DAY OF SERVICE
Members of the Vanderbilt community joined students from local universities including Tennessee State University (TSU), Fisk, Lipscomb and Belmont for the MLK Joint Day of Service Saturday, Jan. 18. Since this year marks the 60th anniversary of Nashville Lunch Counter Sit-Ins, the theme was “Sit-Ins @ 60: Students. Action. Justice.”
The day began with food, reflection and a keynote by Freedom Rider Dr. Ernest “Rip” Patton at TSU’s Kean Hall. Patton remarked that he fought for the benefit of our generation and urged students that it was our time to take up the torch in continuing to fight for equality.
After hearing Patton speak, students had the opportunity to serve at local places including Trevecca Towers, Knowles Home Assisted Living and Trevecca Urban Farm.
The following day, Vanderbilt held a candlelight vigil followed by a lecture with musician, actress and producer Janelle Monáe and activist Yusef Salaam, one of the Exonerated Five formerly known as the Central Park Five.
The vigil included music from student groups Voices of Praise and Melanated A Cappella in addition to poetry readings.
Following the vigil, Emilie Townes, Dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School, moderated discussion with Monáe and Salaam as part of the keynote address of the 2020 MLK Commemorative Series, co-hosted by the Chancellor’s Lecture Series.
Both Monáe and Salaam discussed the significance of storytelling as part of this year’s MLK Commemorative Series theme.
“It’s through our stories that we feel seen,” Monae said. “We feel heard. We feel listened to. I always say that through storytelling, through telling the story, you’re creating more empathy.”
Salaam commented on the power of resilience in the face of fear.
“Everybody knows that fear is an acronym stands for false evidence appearing real,” Salaam said. “When you walk through hell, and they tell you to keep on walking, it builds you into a different type of person.”
MLK DAY EVENTS: MARCH AND CONVOCATION
Students and dignitaries including Interim Chancellor Susan Wente joined other members of the Nashville community in the Interdenominational Ministers Fellowship’s Jefferson Street March and Convocation Monday, Jan. 21, MLK Day.
Participants walked from the Jefferson Street Baptist Church to the TSU Gentry Complex to celebrate the legacy of MLK.
The Convocation featured live music, poetry and remarks from elected officials including Mayor John Cooper, Congressman Jim Cooper and Governor Bill Lee in addition to a keynote address from Joy-Ann Reid, political analyst and host of AM Joy.
A self-proclaimed history buff, Reid in her keynote discussed Tennessee’s place in American history as it relates to civil rights. She commended the sit-ins and efforts for equality in Nashville but condemned Tennessee’s role in Andrew Johnson’s rise to power. She also cautioned people from misinterpreting MLK’s message, sharing how he fought for economic and racial justice.
“America needs to get motivated—not to quote King—but to live the dream he was fighting for,” Reid said.
During MLK Day, students had other opportunities to get involved. Vanderbilt Hillel hosted its annual MLK Day Blood Drive at the Schulman Center for Jewish Life. Vanderbilt offered several Teach-In sessions: Beyond the Beat: Hip-Hop as Activism in a World That Doesn’t Listen, Rewriting Pocahontas: The Importance of Perspective and Voice in Cultural Narratives and #GoingViral: Exploring the Intersections of Media and Civil Rights Movements to Empower Social Justice Activism on College Campuses. Additionally, students could go on the Nashville Freedom Ride to get a tour of our city in relationship to the Civil Rights Movement.