In the summer of 1948, a 19-year-old by the name of Martin Luther King, Jr., arrived at Haverford College as a research assistant to sociologist Ira De Augustine Reid, a new faculty member at that time and Haverford’s first tenured African American professor.
Reid sent King, who had just graduated from Morehouse College, into church congregations in the community, seeking their insights into what constituted effective leadership. That experience was formative, informing what became a hopeful activism that still reverberates today the world over.
This January, Haverford reflected on that hopeful activism again with a full week of thoughtfully curated events to celebrate Dr. King’s impact Beginning on MLK Day, January 16, Haverford re-explored the narrative of Dr. King’s life and legacy through a prism of activism and radicalism. Several programs, presentations, and workshops invited attendees to lean into the work Dr. King started, its implications across the decades, and where and how that work can be continued through our own activism–extending his commitment to establishing and sustaining a reality that is just, equitable and loving for everyone.
“There are so many layers and intersectional points of this work, and it’s important that we create spaces on campus to name and acknowledge that,” says Ahyana King, the interim director of Haverford’s Office of Race and Ethnicity Education, and part of the team that organized the week of events. “What was important to us as a planning team was to recognize that, yes, Dr. King navigated a lot of struggle, but there were triumphs too.” Taking a wholistic view, she says, was a priority.
“MLK Week 2023: Reclaiming the Narrative(s)” began with volunteers packing snack bags and creating cards in Founders Great Hall for the “Caring for Friends” program, a grassroots non-profit that, over its 50-year history, has expanded to a network of 10,000 volunteers and 200 food pantries providing food and friendship in five counties.
Later, Nikki Young, Haverford’s vice president for Institutional Equity and Access and a professor of religion and gender and sexuality studies, led a peace circle. That was followed by a presentation by Edha Gupta and Christine Ellis, two seniors from Central York High School who led a successful effort to overturn their school district’s ban on a list of anti-racist books and educational resources by and about people of color. Several Philadelphia and Ardmore authors and activists for Black-led literary spaces also shared their stories and insights.
Another MLK week session that garnered interest was a discussion of “The Ordering of Moses,” a work recently performed by the Haverford-Bryn Mawr Chorale. Written by R. Nathaniel Dett, one of many overlooked Black composers from the early part of the previous century, “The Ordering of Moses” paints a vibrant portrait of a young prophet’s courage and the liberation of his people. Since the work’s premiere in 1937, the musical world has evolved dramatically; yet this 20th century American masterpiece is only now finding its way into the contemporary choral orchestral repertoire.
Nathan Zullinger, assistant professor of music and director of choral and vocal studies, shared a behind-the-scenes look at the Chorale’s process from conception to performance, including how the performers developed new relationships through this work and why so many deserving works have been overlooked for so long.
A midday program on January 17 with sportswriter Brandon “Scoop” Robinson featured a presentation about how social justice movements have played out in professional and collegiate sports across the country. In his talk, Robinson touched on the shift in NCAA policy that allows players to profit individually from their name, image, and likeness, the detention and return of WNBA star Brittany Griner as a social justice matter, and the continued cost to Colin Kaepernick for his Black Lives Matter stance.
That conversation about sports ended with an acknowledgement of the progress that has been made, but also raised the question, says King, “Do we feel [that] we have moved enough [so] that people can take really strong stances [and not] be out of a job?”
The week came to a close with a screening of the documentary Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin. A disciple of Gandhi, mentor to Martin Luther King Jr., and the architect of the 1963 March on Washington, Rustin–who lived as an openly gay man during the fiercely homophobic ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s—has been called “the Unknown Hero” of the civil rights movement.
The screening was followed by a discussion led by Sayeeda Rashid, director of the Center for Gender Resources and Sexuality Equity at Haverford, and Walter Hjelt Sullivan ’82, director of Quaker/Spiritual Life at the College. “The conversation following the film was very searching about the nature of social change and appreciative of the example Bayard Rustin provided for us,” says Sullivan.
A luncheon with Terrance Wiley, assistant professor of religion and coordinator of African and Africana studies, capped the week’s events on Friday, January 20. Wiley spoke of the ways in which we have stewarded the work of Dr. King and the gift of insight that history has offered us. He also issued a challenge for all to continue the work Dr. King began.
“It’s something that I often remind students,” says Ahyana King. “Dr. King absolutely did a lot of marching. But you also have someone like Rosa Parks—all she wanted to do was sit down. Yet there was a huge impact. There is still a lot of work to do when we think about social justice work. But the hope is that you find the way you are able to contribute, and then you give that all you’ve got.”