Faculty motivates students to uplift Black voices while celebrating MLK

The statue of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was placed in the Peace Garden on Jan. 18, 1998. (Courtesy of Brianna White)

After months of racial tension and protests in different parts of the country, Fresno State celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life with a variety of speeches, photography, poetry and music from current and former faculty members and students on Jan. 22. 

Ramar Henderson, an assistant professor of rehabilitation and counseling at Fresno State, was the keynote speaker of the event. 

Interim president Dr. Saúl Jiménez-Sandoval and Professor Emeritus Sudarshan Kapoor of philosophy delivered speeches on the importance of celebrating Dr. King’s life and how his legacy impacts Fresno State. 

Fresno State’s Peace Garden serves as a memorial to civil rights activists as it honors Mahatma Gandhi, Cesar Chavez, Dr. Martin Luther King and Jane Addams with bronze statues. 

It is a yearly tradition on campus to commemorate these civil rights activists with an in-person event where Kapoor, the university president and keynote speakers deliver speeches. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. took place virtually on Zoom with 62 participants. 

Henderson delivered his speech, “To pay homage,” in honor of Dr. King. 

In his speech, Henderson listed important concepts to remind the audience of the importance to “get the language right” in order to uplift Black people. 

The first concept in Henderson’s speech was “language is key.” He said it is important to pay attention to the language used in social media and news outlets toward Black people.

For example, Henderson said that when Black people participate in non-violent protests their movements are classified as “riots” and perceived as destructive toward the community.

Henderson also highlighted that there are narratives, either on social media or news, that “negate, overlook or just do not lift up the narratives of black geniuses.”

Additionally, his speech focused on how “seeking validation from the oppressor” does not empower Black voices. 

“Seeking validation from the oppressor means trying to reason with white supremacy and asking why we are treated so badly,” Henderson said. “To be Black and proud means that our existence is rooted in strength, in a strength-based approach. Black is beautiful.”

Black people should seek validation within their own community rather than with the mostly white system that has failed them all these years, Henderson said.

Jiménez-Sandoval read an excerpt from Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and stated how important Dr. King’s teachings are and how they reflect on Fresno State. 

“As the premier institution of higher learning that we are, Fresno State harbors and promotes the ideas Dr. King represents and truly embodies within his words and also within his actions,” Jiménez-Sandoval said.

“We at Fresno State have the responsibility not only to further Dr. King’s actions but also to embody them on the every day.”

Dr. King’s speech, “I am Black and I am Proud,” was shown during the event. This speech was delivered on Apr. 12, 1968, a day before King’s assassination. 

Additionally, the commemoration included poetry and songs from students and faculty members.

TJ Taylor, the student coordinator for the African American Programs and Services, recited the poem “The Man Who Thinks He Can” by Walter D. Wintle. 

“In order to stand for something, one must have courage and must firmly believe in their dreams. Courage is rooted in self-belief,” Taylor said before reciting the poem. 

Asia Smith, former director of the Fresno State Gospel Choir, opened the event by singing The Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” 

Smith also sang a song she composed after King’s speech “I Have a Dream.” Her song wonders what Dr. King would think of the current society if he were alive today. 

The 40-minute long event was hosted by Brianna White, the African American Programs and Services coordinator and the Cross-Cultural and Gender Center Leadership Development Programs and Services coordinator, facilitated the event.

White said that the Dr. King Commemoration event was made possible with help from partners from the University. 

She said she not only worked alongside her members within the department, but also with Fresno State’s career staff, administrators, the events speakers/presenters,  the public safety department and much more. 

“It really was a community effort,” she said. “[This] is our program, we did come together and live out Harambe, which is the name of our affinity room that means, ‘Let’s all pull together.’”

White said she had hoped people would be able to see and feel the love shared on campus and with the community when attending the event to celebrate Dr. King’s legacy. 

“I wanted people to take away that this was [also] a celebration and that we have come so far and that we do have work to continue to do, but we can take a moment to come together and to continue to strive for making Dr. King’s dream a reality.” 

Although the commemoration looked different than past years, White said she was blessed and that in the midst of tension and division within the U.S. she was grateful that the community was able to pull together for such an important event. 

“This was the first virtual Dr. King commencement and it was beautiful,’ she said.”

“Any year we get to come together and celebrate so many amazing people and their strives and hardwork and dedication to creating a better world, I think is special.” 

Written with contribution by Halle Sembritzki

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