Syracuse University’s Martin Luther King Jr. celebration brings to light equality issues on 50th anniversary of King’s speech

A smile stretched across Willie Mae Taylor’s face Saturday evening at the Carrier Dome during Syracuse University’s 28th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration.

“I feel so great. This event is just beautiful,” she said. “I feel so grateful.”

Taylor, a Syracuse resident for 50 years, was one of nearly 1,500 guests at the event, titled “Yesterday’s Dream, Tomorrow’s Promise,” said Kelly Rodoski, news manager for SU News.

Keynote speaker Roslyn Brock, board chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, noted the significance of the 2013 celebration.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the 50th anniversary of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the second inauguration of the first African-American president, Barack Obama.

Brock was chosen to speak by the Hendricks Chapel Celebration Committee, which organized the event.

Hendricks started the MLK Jr. Celebration 28 years ago under Dean Richard Phillips, said the current dean, Tiffany Steinwert

The 2013 MLK Jr. Celebration event was created to honor King and the message of social justice, peace, equality and contribution to the community, Steinwert said.

“This is Syracuse University at it’s best,” she said at the event. “I look around and think this is our beloved community. This is who we are – it couldn’t be better.”

Brock said in her speech the progress from 50 years ago to present day is evident, but there are still people in society judged by their race, socio-economic standing, sexual orientation and heritage.

Honoring Martin Luther King Day has become a common courtesy in American culture, and lacks sincerity, she said.

“When viewed through the lenses of the bigotry and hatred – race, class and money still matter in this country,” Brock said.

Contributing to the community is an important part of King’s message, and challenges citizens to view the world differently, Brock said.

The true test comes not when responding to those with power or status, but responding to those who have no power or status, she said.

“We are one nation, under God,” she said. “Not just for some, but for all.”

Brock discussed the importance of helping others succeed so that society as a whole can succeed. She used an African proverb about bigger elephants helping smaller elephants cross over a raging river.

“Once you make it, don’t forget to turn around and help somebody else cross over,” she said. “Service to others is the rent we pay for the space we occupy.”

The way to improve society and ignite change is through the people, which must be a collective goal and challenge citizens, Brock said.

“My friends, it is your time, your moment in history to make a difference,” she said. “Leadership is not a title, it is an action. Courage cannot skip this generation.”

Brock received a standing ovation that lasted for several minutes.

The event also included an annual dinner, which featured a variety of comfort foods ranging from fried chicken, to macaroni and cheese, to sweet potato pie. Tables were spread out across half of the Dome field where SU faculty and students, Syracuse community members and other guests sat together.

The OneWorld Dancers and ADANFO African Drummers commenced the celebration, followed by a commemorative video about King. SU’s MLK Community Choir, which consists of members of different choirs from the Syracuse area, performed “Life Ev’ry Voice and Sing.”

Steinwert, dean of Hendricks, led an invocation in which she incorporated King’s words. She called on the audience to listen to his message and find a new way to advocate for peace and justice, saying “tomorrow is today.”

“There is such a thing as being too late,” Steinwert said.

Leadership and action in the community, which both Brock and King promoted, were honored with the presentation of the 2013 Unsung Hero Awards. The awards are presented each year to individuals who have worked to make a difference in the community without widespread recognition.

The 2013 recipients included JoVan Collins, Engineers Without Borders, Brenda Muhammad and Adena Rochelson.

Collins, a lifelong Syracuse resident, was nominated for her commitment to volunteering Citizen-Action and the Syracuse City School District, even in the face of personal adversity.

Adena Rochelson, an eighth grader from Fayetteville, created Operation Soapdish, and collected 6,693 toiletry items for people in need in the Syracuse area.

Brenda Muhammad is an active volunteer who works with organizations such as the Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity and the International League of Muslim Women.

Engineers Without Borders, a student organization at SU, received an Unsung Hero Award for designing a kitchen and dining facility for Into Abbas Arms Orphanage in South Kinangop, Kenya. The orphanage will now be able to adopt 10 more children with the additional space.

“This event just makes me grateful and aware of all the people helping Syracuse and the community,” said Maria Lopez, an academic counselor in the Office of Supportive Services.

Students said they appreciated the effort SU has put into organizing an event celebrating diversity and multiculturalism.

“I’m very happy SU acknowledges MLK day with such a big event,” said Leslie Walters, a sophomore broadcast and digital journalism major who wore traditional African dress and a headpiece to the event.

To see the campus come together to celebrate African-American culture means a lot, since it is not commonly seen as a general campus movement, she said.

For some, like Gladys McElroy, who has been a Syracuse resident for 56 years, that change has been a long time coming.

McElroy is originally from Arkansas, and saw first-hand the struggles of the civil rights movement in this country when the National Guard entered her hometown.

“I’ve seen the dream come true for myself and for others,” McElroy said. “All problems belong to us. Where there is unity, there is strength.”


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