SPRINGFIELD, Ohio — Wittenberg University’s 15th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Convocation was celebrated with music and included life lessons and challenges from featured speaker Kevin Powell on Monday, Jan. 19, at Weaver Chapel. Summing up the university’s unique approach to the national holiday, Forest Wortham, Wittenberg’s director of multicultural student programs, called it a “day on instead of a day off.”
“Let us celebrate today with a ‘day on’ and treat it like a ‘teach-in’ of the 60s,” Wortham said.
The celebration, part of the 2003-04 Wittenberg Series, was enhanced by a stirring a cappella rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner” performed by the Wittenberg Choir and arranged by Donald Busarow, professor of music and director of the choir. Imani, Wittenberg’s gospel choir, also performed three moving musical tributes honoring King’s work.
Cincinnati native Bruce Robinson, Wittenberg University class of 2006 and president of Concerned Black Students (CBS), introduced Kevin Powell. Robinson delivered the introduction in a cadence familiar to fans of hip-hop music.
“Who is he?” Robinson asked. “I mean besides him being a public speaker, hip-hop historian and a journalist, he’s also the author of five books, a poet and a young activist…published in The Washington Post, Rolling Stone and Essence, as well as Newsweek, Vibe and the magazine Ms…these are only a few of his accomplishments.” The rap continued until Robinson welcomed Powell to the podium.
“I gotta give it up to you, my friend, I was thinking about how I hated to sit through another boring introduction, which simply lists my boring accomplishments, and you proved me wrong. Thank you, that was awesome!” Powell said.
Powell spoke passionately about what people can do to champion the ideals of peace in their teaching and learning.
“Intelligence is not enough,” Powell said. “Here we are at Wittenberg, a well-respected institution of higher learning. Brothers and sisters, you need to use your intelligence and build your character – that’s what’s needed in education.”
Powell challenged the audience by asking, “How many of us are willing to do the work to end racism, sexism, poverty and intolerance?” He asked everyone to think about what the world would look like today without African-Americans. “Imagine if Dr. King hadn’t lived.”
Powell noted that King was very much human – no superhero – with flaws. He shared that King was an adulterer, smoked cigarettes, was short in stature and often complained he wasn’t handsome enough. “He told off-color jokes Richard Pryor and Chris Rock would be proud of,” Powell said. But that shouldn’t take away from all the good in his life. King, a brilliant scholar, accomplished great things leading up to the civil rights movement and won a Nobel Peace Prize, all in his short life of 39 years.
“We need to figure out how we can stand on his shoulders and do good in this life,” Powell continued. “You need to know who you are first before you come to the table. Know your history, then you’ll be in a position of strength. Why do you agree that you are white or black, Cuban or otherwise, because someone told you? Learn your story.”
Powell added, “Sisters and brothers, African-Americans, you need to come with more than soul food to that table, know what I’m sayin’?”
He suggested most people reduce King’s work to a few sound bites or a line or two from the famous “I Have a Dream” speech. He cited the importance of knowing the entire speech, which was radical when it was delivered, because it offers an 18-minute history lesson.
“History is a boomerang, it always comes back,” Powell said. “While we’ve made great progress, we’re still very separate and even though those signs reading ‘blacks not allowed’ or ‘whites only’ have come down, they’ve not come down in many people’s minds.
“Are you people willing to grapple and grow or are you willing to live in a box?”
Later, Powell participated in a question and answer colloquium that drew nearly 80 students who were interested in learning more about his work as a hip-hop historian and his stint on the first installment of MTV’s “The Real World.” They also asked him to define his ideas about leadership, and they asked for his suggestions about making a difference in their own communities and the world.
Powell shared his belief that college is the place where life-changing skills can be learned because, like many reality shows, “you are forced into an environment, and you learn how to deal with different types of people.”
He thinks one of the best ways to share opinions and get involved is to vote, and it angers him that half of the country didn’t vote in the last general election.
“That is a disrespect of all the hard work Dr. King stood for,” Powell said. “When you’re not involved, you’re part of the problem, so the best way to change the upper level of government is to be active on the local level, such as voting for or running for the school board, the mayor, the governor. And as student leaders, you have to be willing to cross boundaries.”
He believes leadership comes from within and that the best leaders are those who can relate to others. He recommends that we stop looking to celebrities for leadership and start supporting the people who are doing the real work: the parents, the teachers and the students.
“You’ve got to think critically and ask yourself how you’re going to make history,” he said.
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