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Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium

“A Single Garment of Destiny”: MLK Day Symposium Goes Virtual

The Office of Community and Equity, along with the McCain-Ravenel Center, arranged a robust program to explore the work and philosophy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday, the national holiday to honor the slain civil rights leader. The day was built around a key part of Dr. King’s last Christmas sermon, in 1967: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Before the symposium began, students were asked to read and watch related materials, including that Christmas sermon, the HBO documentaries about Dr. King, and essays by some of the day’s speakers.
Following an opening prayer and brief remarks, the symposium, which was conducted on the School’s Webex video-conference system, opened with two keynote addresses.

Students in 9th and 10th grade listened to Dr. Peniel Joseph, a scholar of Dr. King at the University of Texas. Dr. Joseph traced the evolution of Dr. King’s work from political successes such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to more militant yet still nonviolent efforts to address deep-rooted injustices in society, the economy, housing, and more.  
 
Dr. Joseph, who holds the university’s Barbara Jordan Chair of Ethics and Values, talked about how Dr. King — as early as his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech — signaled that he was broadening his goals beyond civil rights legislation to include the end of racism, militarism, and poverty as a means of achieving justice and creating what he called the “beloved community.” 

Dr. Joseph said Dr. King began to argue for what were at the time radical ideas of what it would mean for Black people to achieve full citizenship. “He pushes back against the idea that citizenship means ending racial oppression and then everything’s all good. Or that citizenship means voting rights and then we’re going to have perfect equality.”

Juniors and seniors tuned into a talk by Dr. Loretta J. Ross, an activist and professor at Smith College who recently has been writing about the toxicity of "calling out" and the "cancel culture" in social justice movements. Dr. Ross spoke of her long-time work with C.T. Vivian, friend and field general for Dr. King. Vivian encouraged her to lead with love while doing the dangerous and hard work of attending Ku Klux Klan rallies as a Black woman in the 1980s and ’90s and challenging white supremacists. "When you ask people to give up hate, you need to be there for them when they do," he told her. 

Dr. Ross began by paraphrasing the Rev. Hosea Williams, another civil rights leader, who said that Martin Luther King Jr. Day is “always a day on, never a day off.” Dr. Ross added: “We’re supposed to work to make sure that freedom and justice ring not only in this country but around the world in honor of the life of Dr. King.” She said she could have never imagined doing in 2020 the same work she did in the 1960s, and told students about the impact they could have on our democracy: “We’re actually living in a momentous time where we get to define the character of America. Will it be a country that includes everybody’s voices and votes?”

The day continued with an interfaith panel moderated by Rev. Betsy Carmody, the EHS chaplain, with leaders from local faith organizations: Imam Naeem Baig of Hijrah Islamic Center, Gen Demo of The Kadampa Center, Dr. Robert Henderson of the National Spiritual Assembly of Bahá’is of the U.S., Andrew Grossen of Secular Coalition for America, Kentavius Jones of Maryland Spiritual Initiative, Episcopal’s Rev. Richmond Jones, and Rabbi David Spinrad of Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria. Over the course of the hour, these leaders discussed Dr. King's legacy and the ways in which his teachings are reflected across many different faiths.

Grossen, who is an atheist, spoke of the importance of “becoming allies in solidarity with my religious brothers and sisters. Whether I’m religious or not, we can work together to ensure that we all have the same freedoms and the same civil rights.” Baig added: “In Quran, the Prophet said you do not have faith if your neighbor is hungry and you sleep with a full stomach. It doesn’t say a Muslim neighbor, a Jewish neighbor, or a Christian neighbor. It just says neighbor. If we start with that, we can have a society where there is respect and honor for everyone.”

The symposium continued with evening sessions led by EHS faculty, alumni, and guests. The range of workshop topics included an examination of race and identity; a look at ongoing work to explore Episcopal’s history with regard to race; and an exploration of poetry by diverse artists. Also: Jonathan Beane '88, the NFL’s Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, spoke about diversity and equity in corporate America, and Jonathan Lee ’01, joined by some of the EHS alumni featured on his #BlackSuccessFromEHS Instagram page, engaged students about the legacy of many of our Black alumni.

The evening concluded with a school-wide reflection and prayer. One student noted to the group: "One thing that really struck me was drawing a contrast between Dr. King's vision and the progress we're making currently. The progression and change will mostly take effect in your own mindset. Our actions are defined by what we do, not what we say we will do."

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Recordings of our speakers and panel are available in the Resources section of the parent portal on the Virtual Meetings page. We heard a variety of viewpoints from scholars, activists, and faith leaders. As with all our guest speakers, the opinions expressed will not be shared by everyone, but we agree that it is important that our students be exposed to a range of ideas and perspectives. In small groups afterward, faculty and staff helped students reflect critically on the talks and derive meaningful learning from the day’s discussions.


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