MIDDLEBURY—By now, François Clemmons is an old hand at planning Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations. At the height of the Civil Rights movement, Clemmons helped make large, annual vigils in King’s honor a success in New York City. Since then, the current Alexander Twilight Artist-in-Residence at Middlebury College has seen countless MLK events come and go. But, far from being rote or routine, this year’s celebration promises to hold a deeper meaning than usual for many observers.
In the past, Martin Luther King Jr. Day was marked at Middlebury College by a service recognizing the civil rights leader’s hopes and accomplishments. On Jan. 19, Clemmons and others will continue the tradition with a concert at 7 p.m. in Mead Chapel. But accompanying the service this year will be a new series of events in the preceding week meant to further explore King’s legacy (see sidebar).
The new, extended program comes as the United States prepares to swear in its first black president. With Inauguration Day following immediately on the heels of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, race-conscious individuals have come to view the former as a manifestation of King’s hope for a balanced meritocracy.
“In many ways,” said Clemmons, “(Barack Obama) is the completion or fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream. A dream where I’m judged by my character and not by the color of my skin.”
Collaborating with Clemmons in the Jan. 19 concert will be Christal Brown, visiting lecturer in dance at Middlebury College. Brown expects not only to raise awareness about King himself that day, but to give fresh meaning to the holiday.
Nearly all of today’s students were born after President Ronald Reagan made Martin Luther King Jr. Day a legal federal holiday in 1983. For them, it is difficult to remember a time when King was not honored with reenactments of his speeches, choir songs or peace marches. And so while many understand the significance of the day, said Brown, it is still often seen as “something that, ‘oh, my mother celebrated a generation ago.’”
Brown, Clemmons and other members of the college community have united to help transform Martin Luther King Jr. Day from a celebration of history into a celebration of the present.
“I’ve read several of (King’s) speeches that sounded like they were written sometime in the past decade,” wrote Jennifer Herrera, Middlebury College’s coordinator of diversity initiatives, in an e-mail. “This proves to me how very relevant his leadership and vision still are even four decades since the Civil Rights Act was passed.”
To drive home the message, Herrera and her colleagues at the Office for Institutional Planning and Diversity have planned a keynote address for 4:30 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 15. Delivering the address will be Sonia Sanchez, a poet and civil rights activist who taught at Temple University from 1977 to 1999.
“Much of this has been a collective journey for many civil rights activists,” said Sanchez from her home in Philadelphia. “And when one sees the election of Barack Obama, one truly understands it as a culmination of our work as artists and civil rights activists. The earth has tilted, and we must wake up to the alarm clock of change.”
As community organizers finalize their preparations for this week’s events, a different energy is in the air. With the upcoming change of power in Washington has come a change in the attitudes of many people locally toward Martin Luther King Jr. Day. No longer is it a day of hope and desire for another day, a different day. That new day has arrived, said Brown.
“It’s not about what we don’t have, and it’s not that we’re coming together because something is wrong,” she said. “We’re coming together because something is going right.”