A Winthrop University student group that traces its roots back to the civil rights era kicked off its celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday with a rousing selection of songs and dance Sunday night.
Tillman Hall auditorium was filled with the sounds of gospel and the sight of YouTube clips of King, who was assassinated at the age of 39 in 1968.
The third annual event featured choir performances, praise dance and the spoken word – all focusing on the themes of equality and freedom the slain pastor espoused during his lifetime.
“We wouldn’t be here without him,” said Willie Addy, president of the Association of Ebonites, which hosted the event. “You can’t forget where you came from.”
The student group, which now organizes a variety of religious and secular performances as a form of community outreach, was founded in 1968 at the tail end of the civil rights era by a group of black Winthrop students. Just four years before that, the university had admitted its first black student, Cynthia Plair Roddey.
On Monday, the association will take part in a day-long celebration of King, which will include several community service events. More than 300 students have signed up to receive “challenge packets,” which will contain directions to one of dozens of service agencies located throughout the area.
The third Monday of every January is a federally recognized holiday honoring the leader and the only federal holiday specifically dedicated to community service. The campus is closed for classes Monday, but University President Jayne Marie Comstock will kick off the event.
Sunday night’s theme also focused on civic engagement, or as the keynote speaker repeated – the need to “march.”
Lathan Wood, a local pastor with the Movement center in Rock Hill, encouraged students to unite for common causes and continue to fight for equality and justice.
“The messages on the pulpit have become so self-centered,” Wood said of today’s disjointed activist groups, which, he said, lack the clarity of those in the civil rights era. “I see a sea full of smart people – where are the Kings in this room?”
Wood said that his work with both ends of the spectrum – seniors who marched alongside King and youth – paint a picture of a generation gap. “The stories of the struggle are lost,” he said. “There was no need to press forward.”
Wood said it’s the responsibility of the older generation to “pull” in the young teens and adolescents to continue “marching,” for whatever causes that unite them.
Afri Carlos, assistant director of annual gifting at the university’s development office, graduated from Winthrop in 2011 but continues to play a role in campus student life. Carlos said the event’s purpose is simply to “honor Dr. King.”
Addy, 22, who is a senior studying marketing and communications, said events like the one his organization hosts are central to promoting engagement. “I’ve been that student,” Addy said of the stagnancy Wood spoke of among today’s youth.
“Instead of having a day off on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, have a day on.”