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Jemison shares stories connecting civil rights and space

First female astronaut of color to reach space delivers keynote address at Martin Luther King Jr. celebration January 23 at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall

Dr. Mae Jemison, who grew up on Chicago’s South Side and rose to become the first woman of color astronaut to fly in space, declared at Northwestern University Monday (Jan. 23) that Americans of all backgrounds should strive to honor the legacy of Martin Luther King by using their talent, skills and “place at the table” to help others and carry Dr. King’s dream into the future.

Northwestern commemorated the life and work of Dr. King with a two-week schedule of events Jan. 13 to 28, and Dr. Jemison’s inspiring address was the keynote and the culmination. The events included a candlelight vigil, oratorical contest, panel discussions, a day of service and learning and more. Dr. Jemison, who is also a physician and science and technology advocate, spoke on both the Chicago and Evanston campuses.

The community-wide Evanston MLK commemoration at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall opened to a packed auditorium and balcony. The crowd settled when soprano Darshaya Oden, resplendent in a sparkling blue satin gown, delivered a soaring medley entitled “Heaven Spirituals.” In a nod to Dr. King’s pastoral calling, the piece concluded with lines from “Give Me Jesus” sung with heartfelt expression.

Associate University Chaplain and Director of Interfaith Engagement Tahera Ahmad gave the invocation, which spoke of the relevance of Dr. King’s message of radical love and radical justice. She concluded with sung lines from the Qur’an that echoed King’s words about the symbiotic relationship of justice and love.

Larry Stuelpnagel, assistant professor, Medill School of Journalism and political science, welcomed the community reminding them that today Dr. King would have been 88-years old and connecting his marches for civil rights to the world-wide women’s marches over the weekend and the 1913 march for women’s right to vote.

Evanston Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl spoke about the significance of a two-week long observation of MLK. “We haven’t yet gotten to the promised land … we take this time to celebrate the goal and the journey.” Explaining why Jemison was the perfect keynote for the celebration she said, “Astronauts’ exploration of space united us all. Welcome to Evanston, Dr. Jemison. Help us to celebrate diversity, not fear it.”

The audience rose to sing the hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” sometimes referred to as “the Black national anthem,” a poem by James Weldon Johnson set to music by his brother John Rosamond Johnson in 1905.

Northwestern associated student government VP Jourdan Dorrell introduced the keynote with an overview of Jemison’s vast career accomplishments as the first woman of color in the world to go into space, her technology consulting work, her work around the globe as a general practice doctor, her science literacy advocacy projects for youth and her leadership on the 100 Year Starship initiative.

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We haven’t yet gotten to the promised land … we take this time to celebrate the goal and the journey.

Elizabeth Tisdahl
Evanston Mayor

During her keynote address, Jemison posed the question “what are you going to do with your place at the table?” She emphasized the power of choice and explained the choices we make, how we spend our time, makes a difference. She urged the assembly to think about how to “use what we’ve learned in our life experience and bring it to bear on finding solutions to the problems in the world.”

She connected her life experience as a NASA astronaut on the space shuttle Endeavour and the Spacelab J(apan) mission to the civil rights movement saying, “Martin Luther King was not just a dreamer, he was impatient with injustice and ignorance … we can honor his legacy by developing our skills to make change and do well for others, not just thinking about what we will do for ourselves.”

Jemison was born in Alabama and raised in Chicago during the 1960s, a time of civil rights turmoil, scientific change and unlimited potential. Speed records were set and new civil liberties were established. As a bright young girl with a good mind for math and science, she says she was lucky to be born during a time of social progress and technological advancements.

Quoting a Yoruba proverb “even the sharpest blade can’t carve its own handle,” she acknowledged that leadership and legislation, specifically the desegregation efforts of President Lyndon Johnson and John F. Kennedy, supported her success by making a place for African-Americans in the space program.

She also credited the actress Nichelle Nichols, Commander Uhura on the original “Star Trek” TV series, using “her place at the table” to successfully campaign for sending women to space.

Jemison urged the young people in the audience to seek exposure to and experience in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, stressing that these careers cut a wide swath in our lives. Currently only 30 percent of the nation’s diversity is represented in the STEM fields. “This is not necessarily a good path. Those in STEM get to choose the means, methods and standards of funding, research and development. Choices are made for all from a very narrow perspective. We need to get as many perspectives as possible,” she said.

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Martin Luther King was not just a dreamer, he was impatient with injustice and ignorance … we can honor his legacy by developing our skills to make change and do well for others ... .

Dr. Mae Jemison

She also urged “gatekeepers,” those in positions of authority, to get behind women pursuing education and careers in STEM fields, especially during the college and early workforce years when they are most likely to meet resistance, and for parents, educators and society as a whole to be mindful of putting “non-useful ideas out there” that keep barriers in place for women.

“I make really good mudpies,” Dr. Jemison exclaimed as she discussed the importance of children exploring everything they can and the responsibility for adults and gatekeepers in clearing a path for young people, especially girls and women, to succeed. She joked about all the mothers who tell their daughters, “Don’t mess up your hair. Don’t mess up your dress.” Then she appealed for authority figures to try not to put up more obstacles that keep young people from excelling.

Jemison made a case for the value of space research as a platform to push on larger global issues, saying that bold visions and broad perspectives are required to address the challenges of new fuels, new speed requirements and other barriers to interstellar travel, the next frontier in space. Discoveries which have the potential to transform life on earth. “We need to see ourselves as earthlings with a shared responsibility to this world,” she said.

She closed the keynote with a quote from humourist Cynthia Heimel, “When in doubt, make a fool of yourself. There is a microscopically thin linebetween being brilliantly creative and acting like the most gigantic idiot on earth.”

Darlene Clark Hine, board of trustees professor of African American studies and professor of history, interviewed Dr. Jemison and fielded questions for her from the audience.

A student asked Jemison what were the biggest sacrifices she’d made in pursuing her dream to be an astronaut. “I don’t think about the world that way,” responded Jemison. “You get to make choices.” She shared an anecdote about a difficult decision in her life, that of choosing medical school over dancing professionally. “My mom said you can always dance if you’re a doctor, but you can’t doctor if you’re a dancer,” Jemison laughed. “Sometimes those choices are difficult, but if you think through it rationally you will get someplace you are supposed to be.”

Clark Hine asked why the already academically accomplished Jemison chose to pursue an additional degree in African and Afro-American Studies. “It helped me understand that who is involved makes a difference.” Referencing Clark Hine’s work, Jemison added, “We also have to tell the stories of women. And how culture impacts science. And how science impacts culture.”

The program also included music and performances from Northwestern University Jazz Small Ensemble and Northwestern Community Ensemble.

Upcoming 2017 MLK events

Harambee celebration, Jan. 27

The Harambee celebration Jan. 27 at Norris University Center’s Louis Room, 1999 Campus Drive, will bring together students, staff, faculty and alumni with a variety of performances, music and food for all to enjoy. The event is sponsored by For Members Only,  Northwestern’s Black Student Alliance (FMO) and Multicultural Student Affairs.

"Hidden Figures" screening, Jan. 28

The film“Hidden Figures” will be screened for current Northwestern students Jan. 28 at Century 12 Evanston/CinéArts 6 and co-sponsored by NU Nights. The film tells the hidden story of a team of African-American women who provided mathematical data for NASA’s first successful space missions.

Other events that highlighted the 2017 MLK Celebration

Performances of "These Days," Jan. 13-14

Performances of “These Days,” the play written by Allie Woodson and produced by Kori Alston asked, “What does it mean to be young, gifted and black?” The play was presented Jan. 13 and 14 at Shanley Pavilion, 20131 Sheridan Road on the Evanston campus.

Candlelight vigil, Jan. 16

Hosted by Alpha Phi Alpha, the Northwestern chapter of the fraternity Martin Luther King Jr. belonged to. The vigil address was delivered by educator Clint Smith at Alice Millar Chapel, 1870 Sheridan Rd. in Evanston. Smith is a doctoral candidate in education at Harvard, a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow and the 2013 Christine D. Sarbanes Teacher of the Year, as well as a 2014 National Poetry Slam champion and Individual World Poetry Slam finalist. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The Guardian and The American Literary Review, among other publications. His two TED Talks, “The Danger of Silence” and “How to Raise a Black Son in America,” collectively have been viewed more than 4 million times. 

Eva Jefferson Day, Jan. 16

Eva Jefferson Day, a full day of arts, crafts and discussion about the legacy of MLK for students grades K-12 was taught by Northwestern student volunteers on Jan. 16 at Norris University Center, 1999 Campus Drive, on the Evanston campus.

Panel: An Exploration of Post-Election Law and Policy in Healthcare and Civil Rights moderated by Ngozi Nezianya (JD-MBA ’17), Jan. 18  

Located in Rubloff 150, 375 E. Chicago Ave. on the Chicago campus. Panelists included Gabe Gonzalez from the Center for Community Change; Juan Thomas, president-elect of the National Bar Association; Margie Schaps, executive director of Health and Medicine Policy Research Group; and Linda Rae Murray, chief medical officer of Cook County Health and Hospital System.

Student Oratorical Contest finals, Jan. 19

Student Oratorical Contest finalists recited their orations for a panel of judges Jan. 19 at Rubloff 150, Aspen Hall, 375 E. Chicago Ave on the Chicago campus. Orations were inspired Desmond Tutu’s quote “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor,” or MLK’s quote “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” First place honors were awarded to Tatiana Andrea Carrasquilla Villegas (FSM19). 

Day of Service and Learning, Jan. 21

A Day of Service and Learning was held Jan. 21 at Fisk Hall 217, 1845 Sheridan Rd. The day began with an intergenerational presentation and discussion about racial justice movements in Chicago over the last 50 years, and continued with lunch and a bus trip to areas around Chicago and Evanston for service-learning activities.