Candlelight vigil caps Northwestern’s MLK Day celebration

Students in attendance at Monday's vigil held candles and joined the Northwestern Community Ensemble in singing

Joseph Diebold/Daily Senior Staffer

Students in attendance at Monday's vigil held candles and joined the Northwestern Community Ensemble in singing "We Shall Overcome."

Joseph Diebold, Web Editor

As audience members held flickering candles in front of him, McCormick junior Brandan Matthews read the words of Martin Luther King Jr.

“And I assert at this time that once again we must reaffirm our belief in building a democratic society, in which blacks and whites can live together as brothers, where we will all come to see that integration is not a problem, but an opportunity to participate in the beauty of diversity,” Matthews read.

As he finished reciting King’s words from a 1968 article, the approximately 150 people gathered Monday evening at Alice Millar Chapel began a rendition, first humming and then singing, of “We Shall Overcome.”

Matthews was one of six speakers at a candlelight vigil concluding Northwestern’s on-campus celebration of Martin Luther King Day. The vigil, hosted by the fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha, was Northwestern’s 34th annual commemoration of King’s life. This year’s vigil held particular significance, as it marked both the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and the 150th of the Emancipation Proclamation.

The vigil capped off a full day of celebration at NU, including a University-sponsored day of service and a staged reading of David Mamet’s play “Race” at the Theatre and Interpretation Center. This year marked the first time the University recognized King’s birthday as an official holiday, giving students, staff and faculty the day off.

State Sen. Napoleon Harris (D-Flossmoor) gave the keynote address Monday night. Harris (Communication ’02), who played linebacker and defensive end at NU and was a first-round draft pick of the NFL’s Oakland Raiders, won election to his state Senate seat in November and is now running to replace former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Chicago), who resigned from Congress on Nov. 21. Harris’ soaring 20-minute speech delivered the theme of the night: We’ve come a long way, but there is a long way still to go.

“Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. often reminded us of our assignment — our assignment is to let waters roll down like a mighty flowing stream,” Harris said. “He reminded us that we should continue our fight … because injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Harris particularly referenced issues facing black communities in Chicago, including those he represents in Springfield, as evidence of work left to do to fulfill King’s dreams.

Monday’s inauguration of President Barack Obama also resonated at the vigil. Harris made several allusions to the hope King brought to generations of black people after him, including the “hope that a young Napoleon Harris, from Dixmoor, Illinois, would have the opportunity to attend a prestigious university,” before transitioning to Obama.

“He also gave that same hope to a young community organizer who would one day become the president of these United States of America,” he said.

Alpha Phi Alpha president Opeyemi Kusoro spoke at the beginning of the vigil, quoting at length from Obama’s inaugural address earlier Monday. He also remarked on the importance of continuing to fight for justice in King’s memory.

“With all this remembrance it’s important to remember that our work is still incomplete,” he said.

The vigil also featured musical performances from three student groups — the Northwestern Community Ensemble, the Treblemakers and the X-Factors — and two prayers — an invocation from Annette Hankins, associate University Chaplain, and a benediction from Tim Stevens, University chaplain.

“For Dr. King, the Civil Rights Movement had a spiritual core,” Stevens said. “It was about more than politics and protest. Let us rededicate ourselves to this spiritual cause, however we understand that.”

Monday’s events were only the beginning of NU’s programming in honor of King. The University will have a full week of events, including a second keynote address Jan. 28 by singer Harry Belafonte.