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Reflecting on Dr. King's Legacy

Civil rights activist Diane Nash urges 'power of love’ to force social change

  • Nash: ‘Even though we had not met you, we loved you,’ future generations will look to you
  • Confront the oppressor and withdraw from the system of oppression, advised Nash
  • Charles Whitaker: ‘revel in music, yes,’ but also think about making difference in world
  • Medill senior Timothyna Duncan: ‘think about where you stand in this time of challenge’

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Renowned civil rights and peace activist Diane Nash honored the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. Monday (Jan. 25) by challenging students at Northwestern University to learn the lessons of the student nonviolence movement and use them to energize the activism and struggle of their own era for social justice.

Focusing on the power of love to force change, Nash gave a compelling keynote address at Northwestern’s commemoration of the life and legacy of Dr. King, who was her friend, and she underscored the importance of strategy and nonviolence in building a better, more just society.

Recalling the civil rights marches of the 1960s — which often ended in violence, serious injury and sometimes even death — Nash said marchers would calm one another, put their arms around marchers who were afraid or who were crying by telling them, “We are doing this for generations yet unborn.”

“So I want you to know that even though we had not yet met you, we loved you, and we were trying to bring about the best society we could for you to be born into and to come of age in,” Nash told the audience of nearly 400 in Pick-Staiger Concert Hall.

“Future generations are going to look to you to do the same for them. Freedom is not something you get and then you’ve got it. Freedom is a constant, never-ending struggle. Every individual and every generation faces its own challenges, and I hope that when you face your challenges, you will step up.”

Nash’s keynote address concluded Northwestern’s 2016 Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration. The evening program also featured music and performances by Northwestern student groups. Northwestern Associated Student Government (ASG) President Noah Star introduced Nash. Earlier in the day, Nash also addressed Northwestern faculty, staff and students in Thorne Hall on the Chicago campus.

Related: Photos of Northwestern's Martin Luther King Jr. celebration

Nash became involved in the nonviolent civil rights movement in 1959, when she was a college student in Nashville. Nash, a Chicago native who had never experienced segregation in public accommodations prior to moving to the South, went on to become one of the civil rights movement’s pioneers. She was a leader and strategist of the student wing of the 1960s civil rights movement. Her campaigns were among the most successful of the era. In 1960, Nash became the chairperson of the Fisk University student sit-in movement in Nashville, the first southern city to desegregate its lunch counters.

In 1961, Nash coordinated the Freedom Ride from Birmingham, Alabama, to Jackson, Mississippi. She also played a key role in bringing Martin Luther King Jr. to Montgomery, Alabama, in support of the Freedom Riders. That memorable journey was documented in the recent Public Broadcasting Services (PBS) American Experience film “Freedom Riders.”

Nash later became active in the peace movement that worked to end the Vietnam War, and she became an instructor in the philosophy and strategy of nonviolence as developed by Mohandas Gandhi.

"We need to realize that there is no one to solve the problems but you and me,” Nash said, challenging her audience to take individual action and responsibility for social change. "History books and the media frequently portray the movement of the '60s as Martin Luther King’s movement. It was not. This doesn’t take anything away from Martin. I think he was a great man, and his contribution was tremendous. But the people did everything to initiate and sustain that movement. 

"Martin King was not the leader, he was the spokesperson. It was not Martin King’s movement, it was the people’s movement,” she added. "And that’s necessary for you to understand because if young people today see things in society that need to be changed, and they think it was Martin King’s movement, then they might think, 'I wish we had a great leader like Martin Luther King today so that this change could be made.’ 

"But if you understand that it was ordinary people, just like you and me, who did everything, then when you see something that needs to be changed in society, your question would be, 'What can I do?’”

The Jan. 25 evening celebration at Pick-Staiger began with a musical performance of “Deep River” by the Chapel Choir, conducted by Christoper Betz and featuring vocalist Alexander York and soprano saxophonist Steven Banks.

Musical highlights included a prelude by the Northwestern University Jazz Small Ensemble who played an upbeat version of “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” and John Coltrane’s “Dear Lord.” The audience also stood and joined the Jazz Small Ensemble, Alice Millar Chapel Choir and Northwestern Community Ensemble, led by Eric Budzynski, in singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” 

Nash’s speech was followed by the Northwestern Community Ensemble’s a capella rendition of “God Wants a Yes.” Also near the end of the 90-minute program, the Chapel Choir and the Northwestern Community Ensemble combined their vocal talents to sing Rollo Dillworth’s rousing version of “Freedom Train” without musical accompaniment.

During her talks in Chicago and Evanston, Nash related amusing stories about double-dating with her first husband and Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta, 55 years ago, as well as having crushes on entertainers Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier, who were activists in their own right and involved in the civil rights movement, when she was in her early 20s.

But Nash was serious when she talked about “waging war without weapons of violence.” She prefers to use the term “agapic energy,” derived from “agape,” the Greek word for “brotherly love” or “love of humankind,” rather than the term nonviolence, because it denotes intentional activism.

Nash shared a few of the “principles of agapic energy” that she learned in the 1960s and which she has been able to use for a lifetime. They include:

“People are never the enemy -- unjust political systems, unjust economic systems, attitudes (such as) racism, sexism, ignorance and emotional or mental illness -- all of those are enemies,” Nash said. “You can love and respect the person at the same time that you attack their attitude or the action of the person.”

She warned that the problem with violence is you target the individual rather than the unjust system; and oppression always requires the cooperation of the oppressed.

“The system will fall if people do not cooperate,” Nash added. She gave an example of how bus boycotts were effective because blacks stopped riding the buses. “As a result, the oppressed no longer cooperated.”

“Sometimes we hand over power falsely,” she added. “The only person you can change is yourself.”

Nash also shared the six steps she sees as critical for an effective nonviolent campaign:

  1. Investigation: Set an objective and write it down, which gives people the opportunity to talk through what their objective should be. Then, they should determine what they need to achieve that objective.
  2. Education: The movement’s constituents as to what was learned in the first phase and recruit more.
  3. Negotiation: This phase is when people confront their opponent face to face and show them the people’s positions.
  4. Demonstration: Focus the community on the issue.
  5. Resistance: Confront the oppressor and withdraw from the system of oppression.
  6. Take steps to ensure that the problem/oppression does not reoccur.

In his welcoming remarks at Pick-Staiger Monday night, Charles Whitaker, professor of clinical journalism at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marking Communications, acknowledged those who helped make the yearly MLK event possible. Whitaker, who served along with University Chaplain Timothy Stevens as co-chair, led the planning of the MLK events on the Evanston campus.

Whitaker thanked the group of colleagues, students, staff, faculty and alumni who helped in the planning and execution of nearly a week’s worth of programming, culminating with Monday evening’s event. “This event does not happen on my back alone. It does take a village, and we are eternally grateful to the village that steps up and works with us each year,” Whitaker said. 

It is the eighth year that Whitaker has served on the committee. Every year that he becomes involved, he said, he ties himself up in knots and frets about the meaning and significance of this exercise. This year he challenged members of the Northwestern community to make a difference in the world.

“I ask myself, why am I, and more importantly, why are we doing this? Why do we gather in this beautiful space each January? I did come up with an answer. And at the risk of kicking things off on a down note, let me start with a caveat by saying what this event should not be. It should not be a hollow ritual. It should not be a time in which to come together as obligations and pat ourselves on the back for being enlightened enough to spend an evening hearing great music and great speeches.”   

“Let’s be clear also, this is not a celebration,” he declared. “We gather to declare individually and institutionally that we have a responsibility to engage in and wrestle with the obstacles, though they be great, that continue to prevent our community, our country and our planet from being a more just and equitable place. And so I welcome you on behalf of my fellow committee members, to revel in the beautiful music, yes, to contemplate what I am certain will be stirring speeches, but I also challenge you to think about making a difference in the world. It is about committing yourself to the expansion of opportunities and the inclusion of the historically excluded. This is what compels us each January. And it is with that purpose in mind that we welcome you to contemplate and be motivated by the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King.”

Monday night’s student address was delivered eloquently by Timothyna Duncan, a senior from Ghana who is studying broadcast journalism at Medill. Like others at Northwestern’s commemoration of King’s life and legacy this year, Duncan called on fellow students and the Northwestern and Evanston communities to honor King’s legacy by taking action to bring about change and justice.

“I didn’t know I was black until I came to the United States,” she said, opening her remarks with a quote from a Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, whose experience Duncan said she understood when she came to America and found, for the first time in her life, that she was treated differently by some people because of the color of her skin.

Coming from Ghana, a place where everyone is black, Duncan arrived in the U.S. and became hyperconscious of her own race. “I realized that although I did not arrive in the United States in physical chains, like my ancestors did, I was still subject to some of the systemic and social chains that shackled some people who look like me,” she said.

Duncan went on to list a series of injustices she viewed personally growing up as well as in the news reports across an America she found to be fraught with institutional racism and discrimination. She saw stories like one about an unarmed black teen shot dead for shoplifting, she said, “and it baffled me.” Duncan researched how that kind of discrimination also helped account for the large numbers of black and Latino youths languishing in prison.

“I like to think that all of us are more similar than we think we are,” she declared. “If I as a girl from Ghana can enter into a foreign society and realize its injustices -- and identify with the pain of a community that really has a different history from mine -- then surely, everyone who is living in America can and should see these injustices, too.”

Duncan also noted, “I’m grateful for this opportunity that I have to lend my voice as an aspiring journalist, as a black woman, to contribute to this fight for justice and equality. And to you, the members of the Northwestern and Evanston communities assembled here today, I want you to pledge to me on this day that we honor Dr. King, to think about where you stand in this time of challenge."

Quoting King, she said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’ I really hope that all of us can answer by saying that we are making a difference in an unjust world.”

Tahera Ahmad, associate chaplain and director of interfaith engagement, gave the invocation, first in Arabic and then in English, calling people of faith to “stand firmly” for justice.

Nash and Nicholas A. Pearce were the two featured speakers at Northwestern’s annual commemoration of the life and legacy of the late civil and human rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. 

On Jan. 18, the official King Day holiday, upwards of 400 students, faculty and community members braved single-digit temperatures to honor Dr. King in a candlelight vigil at Alice Millar Chapel on Northwestern’s Evanston campus. The event, which was hosted by the Alpha Mu chapter of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, featured musical performances from the Northwestern Community Ensemble and the Alice Millar Chapel Choir and a keynote address from Pearce, clinical assistant professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management and an ordained minister.

“We find ourselves tonight in a nation that is divided into black and white. A nation that’s divided into red and blue. A nation that’s divided into the haves and the have-nots. We find ourselves in one nation under God that is apparently more easily divisible than at any time since reconstruction,” Pearce said. "A nation in which there are systematic efforts to undo the human rights advances of the last several decades. A nation in which we have deceived ourselves by thinking that unprecedented levels of diversity automatically translate into unprecedented levels of inclusion and community."

During his talk, Pearce -- a Northwestern alumnus who is assistant pastor of the historic Apostolic Church of God on Chicago’s South Side -- also stressed the importance of using a college education to improve the greater community.

“How you spend your days is how you spend your life,” Pearce added. “Don’t wait for applause. You will sometimes walk alone. But you owe it to yourselves to dream big dreams -- and walk boldly.”

Also on Jan. 18, Northwestern students engaged in a variety of service projects throughout Evanston and Chicago during the University’s annual Day of Service.

The Chicago campus held two days of service on Jan. 22 and Jan. 23 for Northwestern students at various locations to help keep Dr. King’s legacy alive by participating in one of the many service projects planned in celebration of his life and work.

Jan. 18 also was Eva Jefferson Day on the Evanston campus. The Eva Jefferson Civil Rights Program brought 50 Chicago and Evanston middle school students to campus to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The program's committee organized a full day of arts and crafts activities, speakers for the students and discussions about Dr. King’s legacy. Northwestern student volunteers acted as mentors for the children.

Other MLK-related events on the Evanston campus included two talks by Justice Edwin Cameron of the Constitutional Court of South Africa. Cameron offered a personal account of South Africa's transition from an oppressive racist autocracy to an inclusive democracy under the world's most progressive constitution. He also reflected on the most notable successes as well as the biggest failures as a nation. Cameron’s visit was sponsored by Medill.

Chicago campus events included a Student Oratorical Competition. Ashley Kirkwood, ’16 JD of the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law and winner of the Chicago campus’ inaugural Martin Luther King Jr. Student Oratorical Contest, urged audience members to carry on King’s legacy of hope, action and impact. 

Complacency is not an option considering the ills facing many Chicago communities and issues playing out so prominently in today’s news, said the third-year law student.

“I plan to remember Dr. King’s legacy by not staying in my comfort zone and simply harnessing anger and sadness and disbelief at the state of the nation 46 years after his death, but by giving hope to my community, taking action and impacting my community on a consistent basis,” she said.

The Chicago campus DREAM committee also hosted a conversation featuring guest speaker Craig Futterman, the founder of the Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project at the University of Chicago Law School’s Mandel Legal Aid Clinic. Much of Futterman’s career has been devoted to police accountability. He also was instrumental in the Freedom of Information Act litigation that ultimately resulted in the release of the Laquan McDonald video that sparked weeks of protests. His candid conversation focused on Chicago’s longtime struggle for equity in policing and the role the law can play in bringing injustice to light.

A Dream Week reception in the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law lobby, co-sponsored by the Black Law Students Association, preceded a screening of Candescent Films’ award-winning “3 ½ Minutes, Ten Bullets.” The documentary follows two individuals — a white middle-aged male and a black teenager — whose lives intersected and were forever altered in 2012 after they exchanged angry words over the volume of music in the boy’s car. A gun entered the exchange, and one of them was left dead. Thus began the long journey of unraveling the truth. The film follows that journey, reconstructing the night of the murder and revealing how hidden racial prejudice can result in tragedy.

- Northwestern editors Storer H. Rowley, Pat Vaughan Tremmel, Hilary Hurd Anyaso, Erin Meyer and Kristin Samuelson contributed to this report.

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