Despite the nearly empty campus on Monday afternoon, students and community members slowly flocked to Rockefeller Chapel for a service to celebrate and revive the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. As soon as peaceful organ music had lulled the audience into silence, an intense harmony coming from the back of the chapel pierced through the air, making the audience sit up, turn around, and begin nodding their heads or tapping their feet to the sounds of Soul Umoja. This kind of call to attention was something that resonated throughout the service as the participants held up a challenge to clarify and renew the widely accepted idea of Dr. King’s vision.
Students delivered readings from three different religious texts, including a recitation sung in Arabic from the Koran that had audience members looking to their neighbor for assurance that they weren’t the only ones a little startled and confused. Soon after, a grey-haired man dressed in a white suit and suspenders walked resolutely up to the front and began singing a wandering, off-beat a capella piece using a variety of intonations. Identifying himself only as “travis” (uncapitalized), his performance was representative of his larger artistic work, which uses live performance in order to explore themes of race, gender, and colonization.
While these sections of the service seemed a little hard to place into the more obvious context of the gathering–Dr. King’s legacy–when Loretta Ross came to the pulpit to deliver her keynote address, the diverse components of the service became the point. Introduced as an activist working in the spirit of Dr. King, Ross clarified how her work in women’s reproductive rights, gay and lesbian rights, and more generally human rights fits into the picture of King’s work for civil rights. While she admitted to becoming a feminist for personal reasons after the experience of having a child in high school and becoming sterilized by age 23, her experience working at the Center for Democratic Renewal led her to discover that her status as a feminist should have in no way limited her from fighting in all areas of human rights. Looking back into Dr. King’s speeches, she found that he intended to lead a universal human rights movement and that he became the leader specifically of the civil rights movement due mostly to historical circumstances.
She challenged the audience to expand their idea of human rights, emphasizing that tolerance is never enough in a struggle that requires action to fundamentally alter the state of society. Her work as the founder of the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective, the co-director of the largest protest in U.S. history, and the founder of the National Center for Human Rights Education, among other accomplishments, convey just this spirit of action on multiple fronts that she has found to be the real goal of King’s life work. Forty years later, the work of Martin Luther King Jr. was not just something to remember and honor, but something to re-examine and inspire a movement in human rights that, in the minds of Ross and many others, has a long way to go.