By Colton Williams
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1968, a coalition of Sewanee groups put together a series of speeches, demonstrations, and events called “Crossing the Bridge: Living the Legacy of MLK.”
On April 4, students, faculty, and community members marched to honor the life and sacrifice of Martin Luther King. Beginning in the Quad at 6:01 p.m. Central Time, bells rang 39 times throughout the campus to mark King’s age at his death. More than 100 participants stood in silence as the bells rang.
Dillon Spann (C’20) began the event by saying that he was perplexed as to the right way to honor King. “Do we reflect? Because we can sit here and think about the impact he had and the teachings he gave to the world, and what he did for black people and the country as a whole,” Spann said. “And we could celebrate…but is it really right to celebrate a man who we lost at the age of 39 to gun violence?”
Spann went on to say, “50 years ago on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, we lost a black body…and 50 years removed from that tragedy, we live in a time where we see black bodies still being removed from their communities, their jobs, families, and homes, early and often.”
The unfinished aspect of King’s “dream” was a consistent theme during the evening. All of the speakers touched on some aspect of modern America and how racial justice is far from realized.
Eric Benjamin (C’73), Director of Multicultural Affairs, read lines from Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise” and recounted his experience attending King’s funeral. Benjamin said that the anniversary of King’s death was the anniversary of “a new struggle which continues today in many sectors of America. We must continue to build on the success of the past. Today we have women’s rights, gay rights, human rights, and other movements around the world, all inspired by the work of Dr. King.”
LaToya McIntyre (C’20) also emphasized the importance of progress and the need to shine a light on the racial issues that still plague the country as a whole and Sewanee in particular. McIntyre told the crowd to consider an analogy, saying that no one is okay with getting 50-70 percent of their meal, 50-70 percent of their work, or 50-70 percent of their effort. “So why is it that when a minority says they want 100 percent of their freedom, they want 100 percent of their rights… we can’t relate? Think about that,” said McIntyre.
McIntyre added that from elementary school to high school, students hear, “‘He had a dream and we’ve come so far,’ but have we? Have we come very far? We have done half of his dream. At the University of the South, we just removed a Confederate statue. It has been 148 years since slavery has been condemned. Why did we do it now? It’s 2018.”
McIntyre referred to the memorial for Edmund Kirby-Smith, which previously stood at the intersection of Texas and University Avenues but was moved to the University cemetery last semester after a request from his descendant, Tom Kirby-Smith.
After hearing these sentiments from the speakers, Tori Hinshaw (C’19) led the crowd in singing the classic Civil Rights song “Blowin’ in the Wind” before leading the group in singing “We Shall Overcome” as those gathered marched with police escort from central campus to Angel Park.
Once at Angel Park, Charles Whitmer, Executive Director of the Cumberland Center for Justice and Peace, welcomed the group and Fr. Rob Lamborn (T’94) from Otey Memorial Parish recited a prayer. At 7:05 p.m., the time at which King was pronounced dead, bells once again tolled 39 times to honor King’s life and work.
Three more speakers addressed the marchers at Angel Park. Barbara Banks talked of living in Sewanee pre- and post-Civil Rights Movement. Bruce Manuel (C’80), owner of Sewanee Pilates, discussed how Martin Luther King is perceived today differently from his time. Francis Walter (T’57) told the crowd about his experience as a priest in segregated Alabama and how he was fired for supporting the civil rights cause.
After these speakers, the crowd once again joined together in song, this time with the more upbeat and hopeful “We Shall Not Be Moved.” It was a fitting tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. and a reminder of the continuing struggle for civil rights for all.