In a keynote address that marks the beginning of the College’s week-long celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund, said that to honor King’s legacy Americans must act as voices for children and the poor. The speech, titled “(In)Visible Identities: The King Legacy and the Class Divide,” took place in Spaulding Auditorium on Monday night and followed a candlelight vigil in honor of the 40th anniversary of King’s death.
Edelman, who served as counsel for King’s Poor People’s Campaign, which sought to eradicate poverty in America, said that the only reason that poverty persists in the United States is that Americans have not made its elimination a priority. Edelman described the United States as militarily powerful, but “morally anemic.”
“It is very clear to me that we must act with urgency to reset our country’s moral compass,” she said.
Edelman went on to say how, were he alive today, King would be pleased that Tiger Woods, Barack Obama and other minority figures have achieved success, but would be appalled that there remains a high probability that African American and Latino children will go to prison at some point in their lives. Today, she said, King would be challenging Americans to eliminate the poverty and inequalities of opportunity that lead to such situations.
Edelman framed much of her address as a series of rhetorical questions, asking the audience to consider the nation’s future and how individuals can shape it.
“How is progress going to be measured over the next thousand or hundred years?” Edelman asked.
While she mentioned violence and consumption as possible benchmarks for judging the country’s progress, Edelman said that she hoped future generations would place a greater emphasis on efforts to improve society as a means for evaluating the nation.
“I am not going to leave this kind of world for my grandchildren,” Edelman said.
In order to create a more equal and just nation, Edelman said that people of all ages must hold federal and state governments accountable, resist conformity and maintain a positive vision of the world’s future.
Concluding her remarks with a prayer for the ability to effect change, Edelman said that the nation must commit itself to serving children and the impoverished.
“We can all say, ‘I care and I am willing to serve,'” Edelman said.
President of the College James Wright also spoke at the event, alluding to the recent controversy over the announcement that the Dartmouth chapter Beta Theta Pi fraternity will displace Alpha Xi Delta sorority from their current physical plant on Webster Avenue.
In his remarks, Wright mentioned a recent resurgence of interest in the state of gender equality on campus. Wright said the College remains committed to gender equality.
Darrayl Cummings ’08, the evening’s master of ceremonies and president of the Afro-American Society, also spoke about the need for action, addressing the issue of apathy on Dartmouth’s campus. Cummings said that he perceived a yearly exodus of minority faculty from the College and argued that students are not being vocal about the trend.
“Let’s end apathy and make this campus a better place,” Cummings said, a remark which earned him a standing ovation from the crowd.
Earlier in the evening, the brothers of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., honored King’s birth and death with a candlelight vigil and a multimedia presentation that included news clips and a recording of the speech that Robert F. Kennedy delivered in response to King’s death.
“I hope that the speech grabs people’s attention and helps the audience to understand the reactions that people had in 1968 when they heard the news,” Michael Simoni ’08, president of Alpha Phi Alpha, said before the presentation. “It’s a jarring speech.”
Kyle Battle ’11 said that he believed the program accomplished exactly that goal.
“It ran chills through my body,” Battle said.