Madeline St. John
Blue tablecloths, elegant centerpieces, and cocktail glasses set the scene for an evening of serious discussion about the history and relevance of the civil rights movement. A tradition that began long ago, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Dinner encourages students, faculty, and staff to come together and reflect on how far we have come and how far we have to go when it comes to civil rights.
Organized by Umoja, the annual event features a formal dinner, and black faculty or staff as speakers. This year, Dayvon Love, who works in the Center for Race, Equity, and Identity, spoke about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his role in the civil rights movement, emphasizing that people like King are part of larger grassroots movements. In the civil rights movement, there were many organizations and people involved who were necessary for its success, and for the success of King—something which Love suggested we remember when approaching activism today.
Each year, the dinner has a different theme. This year’s theme was “Hear our Black Voices, Save Our Black Lives,” a phrase that echoes what is currently occurring in our society. “There are lots of people killing black people because they don’t care about who they are or about what they have to say,” said Najah Ali ’16, president of Umoja.
This year, the event also had themed tables, an aspect that differed from previous years. Ten people were seated at a table, each of which had one of the following themes: Nation of Islam, Black Panthers, Little Rock Nine, Tulsa, Protestor, and Freedom Riders. “These are all people that were silent, that were put in danger for speaking up,” Ali said.
After Love spoke, students April Edwards ‘19, Cydnii Jones ‘19, and Asika Etuka ‘18 performed. Edwards performed poetry she had written about her experiences and thoughts as a black woman in today’s society living with the reality of police brutality. After Edwards performed, the audience was invited to reflect on the thoughts and feelings that her performance had raised.
To conclude the program, Jones sang “Strange Fruit” during a candle-lighting, which was followed by Etuka singing Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come.” The official program was over at this point, but many students, faculty, and staff stuck around to discuss their thoughts, thank the student organizers, and simply make conversation.
“The program reminded me of the unique struggle people of African descent face,” wrote Mary Tandia, the Educational Opportunities Program Manager, who attended the dinner. “The intersections of gender and racial oppression in the struggle for social justice came to mind. I thought of my personal journey and how far we still need to go to experience true equity.”
Along with the themed tables, this year the dinner was also in a different location. Traditionally, it takes place in the Hyman Forum, but this year it was in the Rosenberg Gallery at Dorsey Center. “The space makes everything feel different altogether,” Ali said.
Attendees agreed. “[The location] was more suitable for the occasion,” Tandia wrote.
Food for the event—a buffet line—was provided by Bon Appetit. “Food is not free, so without that we could have saved so much money,” Ali pointed out. “Club Council is not going to have enough money for all the stuff we [Umoja] want to do.” This was one difficulty of organizing this event. There were also people who RSVP’d to the dinner, but did not come—a frustrating reality for anyone planning a formal event.
Overall, however, the dinner was a success. “Everything happened the way it was supposed to happen, and people found meaning out of it,” Ali said. “People came up to me and said it was meaningful this year.”
Ali explained that she felt compelled to help organize this event because she found it a necessity. “We need to have a strong event, that is up-scale and serious, for Black History Month,” she said.