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Speakers exhort MLK crowd to ‘collective liberation’

01.22.19
By: Mark Tarnacki
Walton speaks

The large photo above the headline shows the dais party from Monday evening's Martin Luther King Jr. Society Convocation in the Chapel of Saint Michael the Archangel. Directly above, Dr. Jonathan Walton delivers his keynote address. Photos below show, in descending order, Daneroy Lawrence singing and drumming; President Sterritt with Dr. Walton; and students holding candles during the Reading of the Pledge near the end. (Photos by Danielle Joubert '20)

Read faculty and staff essays on "Collective Liberation" Theme>>

Keynoter Dr. Jonathan Walton had worked up a powerful head of steam as he preached to Saint Michael’s College’s 27th Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Society Convocation in a full chapel late Monday afternoon. “You and I,” the Harvard professor declared as hundreds of listeners clapped, snapped fingers and called out amens, “have to have moral courage to open our mouths when we see injustice.”

Minutes earlier, Saint Michael’s student Adrienne Rodriguez had shown what such courage looks and sounds like. In a well-received extended personal reflection on her Puerto Rican family roots and challenges as a minority student, the sophomore environmental studies major from Boston said her “heart is from Puerto Rico” – a place many Americans treat as a foreign country even though it is U.S. territory -- simply due to the different language and skin color of most residents.

“Many of my white classmates and peers were not familiar with interacting with people like me,” said Rodriguez, whose early college experiences helped her realize how her parents must have felt moving from their home island to Boston: “judged, different, unseen … and you cannot befriend, support, love, humanize those you cannot see.” She spoke pointedly and courageously of the injustice she saw in recent times when hurricanes hit Texas and Puerto Rico and the responses were so dramatically different, with Puerto Rico getting the short end of the stick and many of her relatives and friends suffering deeply as a result of such prejudices and government inaction.

But Rodriguez also spoke of discovering the Saint Michael’s Center of Multicultural Affairs and Services, providing her with vital close friends and supporters, with whom she talks over hard situations as they arise. This motivated her to become a leader in the MLK Jr. Society as treasurer. “I wanted to create a space and activities where people could connect,” she said, adding that friends today are helping her realize she deserves to stay -- and now she wants to stay, she said, despite her early doubts and homesickness. “I’m happy I didn’t give up on Saint Michael’s [but] there’s so much more work to be done,” Rodriguez said. To close, she returned to words from her father that opened her talk. “’When things get hard we push through…take advantage of our ‘disadvantages,’” she said in quoting her dad, adding, “I’m learning every day what that means.”

As did many of the day’s speakers from Saint Michael’s President Lorraine Sterritt to introductions from MLK Jr. Society President Vanessa Bonebo, stirring words from MLK Week organizer Moise St. Louis (associate dean of students/director of The Center for Multicultural Affairs) and an opening prayer from Edmundite Fr. Brian Cummings, Rodriguez in her talk evoked King’s legacy and eloquent words: “Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.”

Sunday’s two-hour program, which got going a bit after the scheduled start time of 4:30 p.m., included haunting solo violin pieces from Mrs. Hanna Assefa and two inspiring drum-and vocal solos from Daneroy LawrenceDaneroy sings, including “Sweet Chariot; also, introductions from Vanessa Bonebo, and a reading by all of the pledge of nonviolence and social justice at the end, led by Seth Bonvouloir of the MLK Society leadership as all lighted candles, before Bonvouloir’s MLK co-officer Meghan Geouque had closing remarks.

Equal parts scholar, dynamic preacher

Dr. Walton in his keynote speech displayed in impressive measure both his scholarship and passionate skill as a Gospel preacher in the spiritual and moral tradition of Dr. King -- whose large photo on the altar Walton regarded thoughtfully as he walked by it on his way to the podium, before giving a small private fist-pump that seemed to indicate that the good fight continues.

His first business was to thank Saint Michael’s facilities workers and local maintenance crews who had gotten campus and town ready, allowing him to brave the elements to come further King’s work – evoking in a small way something that St. Louis earlier mentioned about King braving bad weather to support sanitation workers in Memphis the day he was killed -- which to St. Louis felt perhaps “prophetic.” The relatively youthful Walton marveled that King, when he died, was five years younger than Walton is today. King would have been “a young 90” had he lived, Walton said. The speaker also expressed with enthusiasm his admiration and affection for Saint Michael’s “queenly” President Sterritt from their time together through the day.

Protesters in King’s marches “weren’t trying to get the attention of those who were cruel,” he said, but rather, the attention “of those who were clueless, sitting by on their hands.” For Walton, activism is about “waking up” those who are “unsure about the violence of poverty” and indifferent about the effects of bias and bigotry.

The professor’s deep and astute historical scholarship came through early in his talk as he presented wise history lessons evoking everything from the abolitionist Frederick Douglas to the Irish potato famine and anti-Irish sentiment, and later, nonviolent civil disobedience in response to the oppressive Sheriff Clarks and Bull Connors of the American South in the 1950s and ’60s; He quoted the African American writer James Baldwin several times, and spoke of the Catholic Worker leader Dorothy Day, and of the civil rights activist Ella Baker.

Walton cautioned against the temptation to present a “sanitized” King, “stripped of his prophetic power,” thereby turning him “into some sort of American Easter bunny that comes around with a few good colored eggs of diversity,” without Americans coming to terms with the “cross of empire” – the violence of the Vietnam war, which King courageously stood against, just as he stood up against the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover that treated him as a threat to the nation rather than one of its most important heroes.  In his speech Walton returned often to the words of Jesus, which he said are “easy to repeat, much harder to practice: Love God, love yourself, love your neighbor.” Those who mistreat others show their own self-hatred, he suggested.

The keynote speaker closed by saying that “we can either support one another and live as siblings under the parenthood of God, or, as this dear brother [King] taught us, we’re going to die together as fools.”

Good words from President Sterritt, event organizer St. LouisLorraine and Walton

President Sterritt reminded the audience of the deep legacy in civil rights work by the College’s founding religious order, the Society of Saint Edmund, in her brief remarks, recalling such figures as Fr. Maurice Ouellette, who helped care for victims of Bloody Sunday in Selma, and Msgr. James Robinson, who fought for civil rights too, both inspired by Dr. King. Sterritt said the week’s theme of “Collective Liberation” asks us “to realize that the denial of civil rights to any person or persons denies all of us the opportunity to live in a just world.”

Contemporary evidence of King’s mission living on through work of St. Mike’s graduates, she said, included Jamila Headley ’06 of the Global Access Project that fights world AIDS, or the epic humanitarian work in disaster-ravaged areas around the world by Dr. Frederick “Skip” Burkle Jr.’61 over many decades, or Thato Ratsebe ’05, who works with Burlington-area immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers. “This week is about planting seeds in all of us,” President Sterritt said.

Moise St. Louis, to start his brief remarks, made special point of thanking by name the committee members who put so much work into planning this week’s events: faculty, staff members and students alike. He described the process of choosing a theme, saying student leaders early in the year “expressed clearly that they wanted the community to engage in conversations on the value of college as a means to “seeing freedom in other people as linked and interdependent…” He asked, “Can we create a world where all are valued … formulate a vision of a world that’s all-inclusive?” even as we watch society fractcandlesuring today with expressions of bigotry that we had thought or hoped were already dead.

“I’d like to think we here affirm a truth: that all human beings are deserving of compassion and love. I can’t think of anything more important,” St. Louis said. He urged all to commit to share personal stories and trajectories of growth.

Edmundite Fr. Brian Cummings in his opening prayer quoted a prayer from King citing many names for the same God from different traditions, and asking divine help in establishing “a brother and sisterhood … where men and women will live together as brothers and sisters and respect the dignity and worth of every human being.”

Dr. Walton stayed for an extended time afterward by the altar warmly greeting a long line of students and others, exchanging animated words with each individual he engaged, before a final group photo of the dais party (at top) closed the evening's activities.

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