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Suffolk Commemorates Martin Luther King, Jr.

The life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was celebrated last Tuesday, January 26th at Suffolk University’s annual event at the African Meeting House. Suffolk students, faculty, administrators, and alumni gathered to commemorate MLK’s mission to create a world with equal rights.

“This event is about sparking something inside of us to make a change,” said Kaamila Mohamed, assistant director of Diversity Services, advising the audience to keep in mind those who could not be there due to “systematic oppression.”

“May we continue his work cut short,” said Reverend Amy Fisher, leading the audience in a chant of “I have decided to stick with love because hate is too great of a burden to bear.”

President Margaret McKenna championed this idea when she rose to present the Creating the Dream Award to the Center for Academic Access and Opportunity, recognizing them for creating “an inclusive, respectful climate” for Suffolk’s communities of color.

President McKenna presenting the Center for Academic Access and Opportunity with the Creating the Dream Award

President McKenna presenting the Center for Academic Access and Opportunity with the Creating the Dream Award

“This university hopes to be a place that moves in the right direction,” said McKenna, adding that we should strive to be “not just a mirror of society, but a model.”

McKenna herself began her career in civil rights, sharing how she was a lead attorney suing the city of Memphis in 1973 for race discrimination. She recalled the poor treatment of black people in the workforce, even in the city MLK worked so hard to integrate.

“The Statue of Liberty must be crying when we hear the gates of tolerance and welcome closing,” she said.

The event’s keynote speaker, Opal Tometi, spoke about her personal experiences in a world suffering from systematic racism. Along with heading the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, Tometi became a co-founder for Black Lives Matter after the controversial death of Trayvon Martin and ensuing acquittal of George Zimmerman three years ago.

“At this period I realized that everybody was going to know… about the acquittal,” said Tometi, “They were going to know that black lives actually don’t matter in the United States.”

As the older sister of two young black boys, this controversy weighed heavily on Tometi. Her youngest brother was only 14 at the time of Zimmerman’s acquittal.

“I knew that I had to be part of something that was so visceral that my younger brother and all my fellow cousins and loved ones would know unequivocally that this would not be the narrative that would mark our generation,” she said.

Citing a study from the University of California Los Angeles, Tometi said white people and police officers were found to regularly view black kids as older. They also see lighter skinned people of color as more trustworthy, and feel less empathetic towards those of darker skin. Every 28 hours, an unarmed black person is killed.

“This is happening because of structural racism,” said Tometi, adding that the context is “deeply psychological… deeply embedded in the fabric of our nation.”

Thus she has helped to develop Black Lives Matter into an organization that addresses all aspects of life: immigration, health care, housing, education, transgender rights, etc.

“Ultimately, the work for us is about building a multi-racial democracy that actually works for all of us,” said Tometi. “It’s not going to work if black lives don’t matter.”

Black Lives Matter grew monumentally after the racially fueled riots in Ferguson, Missouri. The organization mobilized 500 people from across the country in two weeks to go to the city and show their support for those suffering. Now, Black Lives Matter is an international network with about 30 chapters across the country. Tometi attributes the organization’s growth to that time in Ferguson.

“They courageously, with all of their mourning, were able to translate that into action,” she said of the people of Ferguson.

As the organization grew, so did its opposition. Tometi remained composed, almost lightheartedly baffled, about the conflicting organization All Lives Matter.

“Of course All Lives Matter,” she said, “that’s why we have to say that Black Lives Matter. That’s why we have to create a movement to affirm the dignity of black lives.”

Tometi called All Lives Matter an attempt to silence “a movement that is in fact righteous,” adding that “when we continue to see our brothers and sisters be murdered with impunity, it is our duty to speak up… all of us.”

As an activist and co-founder of Black Lives Matter, Tometi admitted that she often gets hate mail and threatening phone calls, but she never plans to back down, hoping others will join in her fight for justice.

“Quite frankly, the stakes are too high,” she said. “I have to continue on.”

The mood of the entire event could be summed up in Suffolk student Asha Hirsi’s opening performance of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the Black National Anthem.

As people shuffled in their seats, Hirsi’s powerful voice echoed through the church, “Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us, / Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us; / Facing the rising sun of our new day begun, / Let us march on till victory is won.”

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