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Beloit College Celebrates its 16th Martin Luther King Convocation

At Beloit College’s 16th annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Convocation held on the evening of the semester’s first day of classes, student and guest speakers used this institution for context while reflecting on the theme “Success, Equity, Community.” The convocation is one of a handful of annual college events that integrate voices from the off-campus Beloit community with those of students and faculty.

The event featured speeches and performances by student employees of the college’s Office of Student Success, Equity and Community (SSEC) and members of Black Students United (BSU), as well as by members of the surrounding community. Dr. Kesho Scott, an associate professor of American Studies and Sociology at Grinnell College, visited from Iowa to serve as the evening’s keynote speaker.

Jerry Jones’23, who works in the SSEC office, opened the program by speaking about “success,” the first third of the convocation’s theme, in the context of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy. Jones mentioned King’s commitment to teaching critical thinking and argued that a liberal arts education is the most effective means of learning such a skill.

Following a performance of the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by Regina D. Hendrix, the director of a pre-college program at Beloit Memorial High School, Beloit College President Dr. Scott Bierman reflected on the occasion. Bierman acknowledged that the history of the college is “fraught and complicated” and expressed regret that Beloit students and community members don’t come together more often at events like the convocation. He spoke about King as above all an educator and encouraged all those in attendance to continue to educate themselves by reading the essays and articles that comprise the New York Times Magazine’s “1619 Project,” which aims to re-examine the legacy of slavery in the United States.

Eva Laun-Smith’21 had been tasked with speaking about “equity,” the second part of the theme. Laun-Smith noted that Beloit College’s mission statement doesn’t mention equity, and reminded the audience that colleges and universities are one of many kinds of U.S. institutions whose histories are inseparable from the legacy of slavery. She summarized the history of black students at Beloit and their legacies, beginning with Grace Ousley, who became the first black woman to graduate from Beloit College in 1904, and her brother, Laurence Ousley, who enrolled at the school in 1890 and was one of its first black students. Laun-Smith described the Black Demands of 1969, which were directed at the college administration and pressed for better representation in the student body, faculty, and curriculum. The quotas mentioned in the demands have never been met.

Still, Laun-Smith said, “steps [toward better representation on campus]”—including the 1999 hire of Dr. Debra Majeed, Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies, who was the first black professor to be hired by the college—“wouldn’t have been made without student protest.”

Hendrix introduced one of her students at Beloit Memorial High School, a senior named Dashawn Isabell, who spoke about “The Impact of Community.” “The community is you,” Isabell told the audience, adding, “When we make what we hear our belief, it opens a door for unfair thought about people who are not like us.”

Next, Kaela Iman Hadaway’20 performed the opening sketch, titled “Git on Board,” from George C. Wolfe’s 1986 play “The Colored Museum.” For the sketch, or “exhibit,” Hadaway acted as a flight attendant welcoming the audience aboard the “celebrity slaveship” for a journey from the Ivory Coast to Savannah, Georgia.

Mezekerta Tesfay’23 had been asked to address the final component of the evening’s theme, which was “community.” Tesfay spoke about the myth that both equity and equality were achieved during the American civil rights movement, and said that one of the ways in which this idea is demonstrably untrue is that at primarily white institutions like Beloit, organizations like Students for an Inclusive Campus “are tasked with reminding white students that students of color exist.” Tesfay said that it is not the responsibility of minorities alone to advocate for and support themselves, and encouraged a campus culture where advocacy is not “for minorities, by minorities,” but instead “for minorities, by everyone.”

Tesfay went on to introduce the keynote speaker, Dr. Kesho Scott, who happens to be Tesfay’s mother. Scott earned a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Iowa in 1988, and in addition to her professorship at Grinnell College, she is a founding member of the cultural competency training team International Capacity Building Services and often speaks and leads workshops around the country.

Scott’s address was titled “Truth Forever on the Scaffold: Building on Dr. King’s Dream in 2020,” a reference to American poet James Russell Lowell’s 1845 poem “The Present Crisis,” which contains the lines, “Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne,—/Yet that scaffold sways the future…” Scott asked the audience to repeat and contemplate those lines, before saying that “like Lowell, Dr. King saw the wrong on the throne.”

Often utilizing audience participation, Scott spoke about the trauma she experienced learning about King’s assassination in 1968 when she was 14 years old, and about joining the Black Panther Party a year later. She encouraged her listeners to “keep one foot in the real world while you sit in this academic bubble,” to remember that “heritage is sacred,” and to put in their work “from a powerful place of love.”

Beloit students attend and participate in  convocation. Photo by Yusuke Hatano ’20.

After the keynote address, Dr. Atiera Coleman’10, Associate Dean of SSEC, presented plaques to all of the speakers and honored SSEC Office Coordinator Daksha Howard, who has worked at the school for 20 years.

Howard planned the majority of this year’s convocation and has done so for several years. “I feel really good about this past convocation, particularly because of how it came about,” she told the Round Table on Wednesday: Mezekerta Tesflay, an SSEC employee and one of the student speakers, had suggested her mother last semester when the office was trying to find a keynote speaker.

The speech was “so gratifying because it was so interactive,” said Howard, who’s happy for the opportunity to bring community members onto campus, especially younger ones like Dashawn Isabell, the Beloit Memorial High School student. “I like pushing [speakers from the high school] out of their comfort zones because they realize the potential that they have,” she continued.

Howard also praised this year’s student speakers. “Once [the convocation is] all planned and everything, our students take over,” she explained. “They came up with their own speeches; they had to write them in their own time… I was just blown away by what a great job they all did. I always feel like a proud mom.”

She mentioned that the event was originally slated to take place inside the Powerhouse, just a day after that facility’s projected opening date, but that the convocation was relocated when SSEC learned that the Powerhouse would not yet be open.

Howard encouraged Round Table readers to look out for SSEC’s Black History Month programming for the remainder of February.

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