Celebrating Dr. King’s Legacy: Jan. 17-30 marks the ‘2015 MLK Community Celebration’

February 04, 2015

Alaina Segura and Sophia Socarras

During the last two weeks of January, the University of Virginia and Charlottesville communities hosted a series of events to commemorate the life and legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The years 2014 and 2015 have marked the 150th anniversary of the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which formally abolished slavery, and the 50th anniversaries of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  Each of these milestones gave a voice to those who were previously, and unjustly, ignored and silenced. Therefore, in honor of these achievements, this year’s theme for the 2015 MLK Community Celebration was “Giving Voice.” Over this two-week period, the Iris team attended several of the many events offered during this celebration.

“Legacy and Justice: Civil Rights in the Modern Era,” - Jan. 22 This year’s keynote address, was given by Ta-Nehisi Coates, an Atlantic National Correspondent.  In his address, which was presented by the University of Virginia Office for Diversity and Equity and the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, Coates explained how the injustices faced by the black community today are deeply rooted in our country’s history and heritage. To begin, Coates expressed that speaking at the University was especially emotional for him, considering the history of our state, our school and our founder, Thomas Jefferson.  He opened his address with a quote from Jefferson, in which the former president explained his view of slavery as a form of child abuse. Jefferson thought that children would see the poor treatment of slaves by their parents, and would perpetuate those behaviors when they grow older, and would model for their children the same behaviors, creating a heritage and legacy of racism. “White supremacy,” affirmed Coates, “is a modern invention, invented to justify labor and enslavement. If we look at the history of our legal code, we can literally see rights being stripped from black people in favor of whites.

In one example, Coates explained a law set in place in the 19th century. Blacks can’t strike white people, but whites can strike blacks.  This, argued Coates, literally enshrines the idea that black bodies don’t matter in the same way that white bodies do. In response to the recent deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and of the shock and uproar of the nation, Coates explained his own lack of surprise when learning of these tragedies. “Racism became a part of our heritage, and that heritage does not simply disappear after slavery is abolished. The things we look away from, the generation after us sees.” Therefore, today, it is our duty to combat this legacy and raise our collective voice against the injustice still perpetuated in our society. The Paramount Theater presents Raisin’ Cane: A Harlem Renaissance Odyssey- Jan. 25 This play, starring Jasmine Guy and The Avery Sharpe Trio, chronicles the history of post-World War I Harlem as artistic expression flourished in its black community. The title of the show was inspired by the 1923 novel by Jean Toomer, Cane, which consists of a series of vignettes centered on the experiences of African Americans in the United States. Using dance, poetry, and music, the performance showcased the incredible amount of artistic innovation that came from this movement.  Guy, dressed in full 1920’s garb, powerfully recited excerpts from the works of Langston Hughes and W. E. B. Dubois, whose historic words still hold so much truth in today’s society. The original score, written by Avery Sharpe, consisting of a violin, bass and percussion trio, was at times, heartening, humorous and haunting. These combined artistic elements made the play both an extremely educational and moving event. The following day, the play was put on for students of Charlottesville public schools in order to educate young students on this remarkable period in history.  

Raisin' Cane Photo from the U.Va. MLK Celebration website
Raisin' Cane chronicles the history of post-World War I Harlem.

Continuing Education at U.Va.: Early Service to Women and African Americans – Jan. 27 The University held an event recognizing a special exhibition and all of the accomplishments of the School of Continuing and Professional Studies (SCPS). U.Va. is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the School, formerly known as the Bureau of Extension. When the Bureau of Extension was established in 1915, the University hoped to reach many of the students who were unable to move to Charlottesville, which included women and African Americans. These two groups benefited most from the program, as they were unable to attend classes on Grounds. The first African American students to attend U.Va. arrived in 1950 and the first female students came to the university in 1970. One hundred years later, the School of Continuing and Professional Studies provides classes for more 10,000 students according to the SCPS website. As a part of the “Giving Voice” celebration, current members of the SCPS have collected Extension projects and have placed them in an exhibition in the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library. These Extension projects include the 1919 Bureau of Citizenship that allowed for the education of women voters and the Community Action Experiment of the 1940s. These beautiful, old documents were placed on display throughout the library to allow as many people as possible the opportunity to see them. Dean Billy Cannady gave a speech in which he applauded the “uncommon leadership designed to serve the common good” of those who have made SCPS what it is today. The School of Continuing and Professional Studies now offers a total of 632 courses, 122 fully online courses, and awards Bachelor’s degrees, Master’s degrees, and academic certificates according to the SCPS wesbite. During these two weeks, by attending these events and confronting the ongoing battle for equality, the University and Charlottesville communities came together to raise their voices against injustice, to stand up for one another, and to honor the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King.

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