Alpha Mu’s MLK Day candlelight vigil explores themes of mass incarceration, abolition


Maia Pandey/The Daily Northwestern

Rabbi Jessica Lott closed the Monday afternoon event with a benediction, while Alpha Mu members held candles in front of their screens.

Maia Pandey, Reporter

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Northwestern’s Alpha Mu Chapter of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity held its 42nd annual candlelight vigil in honor of the civil rights leader, who was a member of the fraternity at Boston University.

The hour-long vigil was a part of MLK Dream Week, a University-organized series of virtual events in celebration of Dr. King’s legacy. The Northwestern Community Ensemble opened Monday’s event with a performance of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” followed by a performance from spoken word poet Timothy Mays and a prayer led by Chaplain Tahera Ahmad, NU’s director of interfaith engagement.

“Even in secular institutions we cannot dismiss that Dr. King was a man of deeply rooted spirituality,” Ahmad said. “For a man who was incarcerated 29 times, you better believe that he was deeply connected to the divine.”

Godson Osele, Alpha Mu chapter vice president, said mass incarceration and its disproportionate effect on the Black community was on the organizers’ minds when planning this year’s event. As a historically Black organization and a chapter of the oldest Black fraternity in the nation, Alpha Mu’s programming was influenced by NU Community Not Cops protests, the McCormick senior said.

Osele said they chose author and actor Hill Harper, an advocate against mass incarceration, as Monday’s keynote speaker in hopes of furthering the abolitionist conversation on campus and building on abolitionist activist Mariame Kamba’s MLK Dream Week address last week.

“(We wanted) to add to that dissenting voice in the community to let people know that it’s no longer time for just talking about it,” Osele said. “We’ve seen the numbers, we can give you all these speakers that are going to let you know this is an issue, and basically enough’s enough for just talking about it.”

Harper, who is also an Alpha Pi Alpha member, has won seven awards from the NAACP for his work. His most recent book, “Letters to an Incarcerated Brother: Encouragement, Hope, and Healing for Inmates and Their Loved Ones” speaks to the crisis of mass incarceration.

The United States contains about 5 percent of the world’s population, yet holds over 20 percent of the world’s prisoners, the majority of whom are people of color, Harper said in his address.

“One of my favorite quotes from Dr. King is, ‘We are tied together in the single garment of destiny,’” Harper said. “There are multiple systemically racist and systemically unjust instruments that try to block you through your journey…let’s think about how important it is for each and every one of you to claim your purpose.”

Alpha Mu also announced the four grant winners of its annual Martin Luther King Jr. Vigil Award, before Rabbi Jessica Lott closed the event with a benediction, while Alpha Mu members held candles in front of their screens.

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