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Martin Luther King, Jr. convocation

Beloit College paid homage to students’ traditional “Beloit time” by honoring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. a week after the national holiday in his name, Beloit College President Scott Bierman joked during his remarks at the college’s 14th annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Convocation on Mon, Jan. 22.

Students were still at home for winter break on Jan. 15, the actual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, but their return to classes the following week was celebrated by the convocation in the Edward Dwight Eaton Chapel. Members of Beloit’s Black Students United, President Bierman, and keynote speaker Rev. Michael Ramsdail’06 meditated on this year’s topic, “His Dream… Her Voice; Amplifying the Voices of Women Today, Yesterday and Tomorrow;” and on the endurance of Dr. King’s 50-year legacy.  

Following a musical performance by the Beloit Community Choir, led by its founder and director Rebekah Evans’18, Associate Dean for Inclusive Living and Learning Cecil Youngblood accepted a recognition of service plaque on behalf of Theodore Williams’18, programming assistant for the Office of Inclusive Living and Learning. Williams was absent from the event because of another engagement.

Black Students United president Shavaise Thomas’20 and BSU member Jonathan Dudley’20 welcomed students and faculty back to campus for the start of the 2018 Spring term. They spoke of education as a priority for young black people who will be met with higher scrutiny and stricter standards than their white peers in professional fields while they fight to prevail against systemic racism.

Thomas read one of her favorite King quotes for the audience: “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.” She said that for her, the sentiment applied to the experience of black students at Beloit College, who are asked to thrive in an institution that was not founded with their identity in mind but who have always succeeded in moving forward within it.

President Bierman used his opening remarks to read a poem by the writer and civil rights leader James Weldon Johnson, whose song “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” written in 1900, is considered the anthem of black America. Bierman remarked on Johnson’s subversion of white dialect in his poetry.

As Rev. Ramsdail took the stage to deliver his keynote address, he acknowledged that there was “something amiss” about the invitation of a male alumnus to speak about amplifying the voices of women, especially on the heels of the 2nd annual Women’s March on Sat, Jan. 20. The march had demonstrated once again that “women do not need a man to amplify their voice,” Ramsdail said. In light of his invitation, however, he had collaborated with Senior Director of Academic Diversity and Inclusiveness Dr. Nicole Truesdell, and he told the audience about the women of the Civil Rights Movement and about attempts from both inside and outside of the movement to silence their voices.

One of those women was Claudette Colvin, who was arrested at age 15 for refusing to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, nine months before the more famous incident involving Rosa Parks. It was Parks, however, who would be named the “first lady of civil rights” and the “mother of the Freedom Movement.” She was a middle-class adult with a good reputation in her community, and civil rights leaders felt that she would make a safer representative of their cause.

“I was too militant,” Colvin would later say of the movement’s failure to recognize her role in the inception of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Colvin was among five women who were listed as plaintiffs in Browder vs. Gayle, a lawsuit filed by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in February 1956 on behalf of black women who had experienced discrimination on Montgomery public transit. The plaintiffs – Colvin, Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald, Jeanetta Reese, and Mary Louise Smith – were the Civil Rights Movement’s “women before Rosa,” said Ramsdail.

He also spoke about reclaiming a seat at the table for Coretta Scott King, whose leadership was central to the Civil Rights Movement but who is often an afterthought in Dr. King’s biography, and who was sometimes referred to simply as “a talented soprano” in contemporary coverage of the couple’s work.

Ramsdail explained that Coretta Scott King always spoke about an egalitarian partnership with her husband, rejecting the notion that he was in command within the Civil Rights Movement. Rather, as the activist Diane Nash has said, “Martin was not the leader. He was the spokesperson… It was not Martin’s movement, it was the people’s movement.”

Finally, Ramsdail described his relationship with his faith and how it intersects with his belief in King’s work. Human rights are worth fighting for because they were ordained by God, he said, and it is the duty of marginalized individuals to reclaim their rightful place. But “they are not going to hand you these opportunities,” he reminded his audience. “You have to take them.”

Rev. Ramsdail set the tone for the new term with his message of autonomy and empowerment.

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