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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Carleton gathers to celebrate the life of Martin Luther King, Jr.

<esident Barack Obama’s favorite quote, according to his Facebook page, comes from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The Arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

The bending of this Arc took center stage at Northfield’s 15th Annual Community Celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, held at Carleton’s Skinner Memorial Chapel on Monday evening. With the title, “Look Back, but Move Forward,” the evening evoked a slightly different feeling than the previous 14 celebrations, falling the day before the inauguration of America’s first African-American president.

The Community Celebration is hosted each year by the Northfield Human Rights Commission (NHRC) “as part of its mission to secure equal opportunity and improve community relations within the City of Northfield.” It brings together speakers, performers and community members to reflect on and commemorate the life and works of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and celebrate Northfield’s growing diversity.

Carleton President Rob Oden began his portion of the service by detailing a night he spent as a college student eating dinner with Dr. King in Atlanta. Describing King’s “magnetically intense” personality, Oden said of the unforgettable evening, “There was no small talk. Every word was about justice and injustice… Every act and every deed and spoken word was animated by a burning want for justice.”

He then introduced this year’s presenter, Rae Schupack Nathan Professor of Dance and the Performing Arts, Emerita, Mary Easter. Easter described in poem, dance and speech her experiences as the first “black” family in Northfield when she, her husband and daughters moved here in 1968, three months after King’s assassination. In her presentation entitled “From King to President: A View from Northfield,” she spoke of small children staring in awe as she and her daughters passed them on the street and local stores refusing to serve African-American and Latino students in the “A Better Chance” program.

Then, she described a day thirty years later when she sat by the river near Bridge Square and “there was not a blonde person in sight.” In the forty years Easter has spent in Northfield, the town has gone from seeing its first African-American family to teaching elementary school in Spanish and employing the services of a “Cultural Diversity Coordinator.”

While Easter was sure not to forget the “dissonant background music” of racial attitudes, she deemed the eve of President Barack Obama’s inauguration a tremendous step in the right direction. “I think the journey we’ve made right here in Northfield is an example of the kinds of things that happened all across the country,” she said.

According to Easter, the list of people critical in this journey was too long to mention at the service. “There are so many people who worked so hard and believed in justice and community, and a lot of those people were in the audience,” she said.

One of these people was Cherif Keita, professor of French and Francophone Studies and recipient of the NHRC’s 2009 Human Rights Award. Keita, a native of Mali, serves as an advocate for human rights issues in Africa and has created a documentary entitled, “Oberlin-Inanda: The Life and Times of John L. Dube,” about the first President of the African National Congress of South Africa.

After telling the story of Ida Belle and William Wilcox, a couple with strong ties to Northfield who helped Dube receive an education in the United States, Keita focused his thoughts on the present time, saying, “It is to such heroes…that we are indebted today for the amazing milestone we will celebrate tomorrow in the inauguration of Barack Obama.”

Sentiments expressed throughout the evening revealed hope for the next four years and beyond. “I’m sure a moment will come when some of us think, ‘Oh, this [Obama’s election] was a mistake,’” Easter said. “But I really do believe in him, his messages, his ability to change.”

This belief vested itself in Obama’s favorite quote, as Easter said, “You have to admit that our arc of justice has bent a long way.”

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