Campus honors and remembers the late Dr. King

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By Mary Nicholas, News Editor

For 22 consecutive years, the School of Music opened the doors of Presser Hall to host the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Gospel Festival.

Groups from across the state came to Illinois Wesleyan on Monday, Jan. 16 to celebrate through song King’s messages of peace and justice.

“What I love most about this day is your ethnicity, your sexuality, your church do not matter. You can put all those things away and come together to show we are all children of God,” said Shirley Boykin, co-director of the United Gospel Singers of Bloomington-Normal Mass Choir and the Mount Pisgah Sunbeam Choir.

Besides Gospel singers, presenters at the festival ranged from praise dancers to President Wilson, and also included a recitation of King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech by Reverend David Wayne Brown.

As Illinois Wesleyan University hosted King as a speaker during the civil rights movement, the Gospel Festival provides an opportunity for the university to honor the message King personally delivered to the campus.

“Gospel music speaks to the many ideas that King promoted such as faith and fellowship,” said Carl Teichman, IWU’s Director of Government and Community relations. “This music in itself makes these things happen.”

Among Monday’s gospel performers was ten-year-old Myrissa Wiggen, Boykin’s student. While Wiggen enjoyed the time off of school to “sing for God and [King] with [her] friends,” Boykin emphasized to all her young students that this was a day “not to stay home from school, but to believe in King’s message.”

“We come to this festival every year,” said Wiggen’s mother, Stacey. “I don’t know a better way to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day.”

Illinois Wesleyan students enjoyed celebrating in the audience as much as the performers did on stage. Senior voice major Matt Skibo especially enjoyed the high-spirited finale. “It’s like Jesus Zumba,” he said.

Aside from the Gospel Festival, the School of Music also offered another musical event to honor MLK. On Thursday, Jan. 19 at Evelyn Chapel, Dr. Moham presented a Festival of Spirituals, a concert for a more solemn genre close to the hearts of civil rights activists.

This annual festival offers performances by Illinois Wesleyan musicians so the campus “can experience a rich part of African American musical tradition and students can give that little part of themselves to honor King,” said the festival’s founder, Voice Professor Dr. Carren Moham.

According to Moham, this performance is so well loved by students that many musical alumni in teaching positions have initiated similar festivals to commemorate the holiday.

She is unsurprised by the connection students experience with the songs because, “without this music, the message of the civil rights movement would never have been the same,” Moham said.

During the 1960s when the movement was in full swing, King paid two visits to Illinois Wesleyan. In his first appearance on campus, February 14, 1961, King spoke for a Religious Activities Banquet for 500 people. When he returned with a Nobel Peace Prize and “a dream” in 1966, he spoke for a gymnasium packed with 3500 students, faculty, and community members.

While King spoke specifically to Wesleyan students about race relations, in his lifetime he worked for many types of social justice. “We must work passionately and unrelentingly for first-class citizenship. We must never use second-class methods to gain it,” he said in his second address to IWU.

To the congregation of his own church, King expressed he did not want to be remembered for winning the Nobel Prize. “It isn’t important,” he said. “I want to you to say I did try to feed the hungry.”

With King’s wishes in mind, on Monday Jan. 16th, Wesleyan also honored his legacy by presenting a series of “teach-in” presentations addressing deficiencies in our nation’s food system.

Keynote speaker for “Sustainable Agriculture in Bloomington and IWU,” Danny Kerry ’13, invited the audience to consider the benefits of a Peace Garden.

“Wesleyan has some of the brightest minds in the country and McLean County has some of the most fertile topsoil in the world. That’s a pretty excellent recipe for a garden,” said Kerry.

In combining King’s passion for pacifism with Wesleyan’s principles of sustainability, the Peace Garden offers a progressive way for Wesleyan students to respect their environment and community.

Though King brought attention to several just causes to IWU, they were only part of what King shared with his 1966 audience. “Several comments he made to the crowd that night were fairly humorous,” said Teichman referencing King’s atypical jokes about tardiness and Baptist preachers. “This campus had a chance to see a more human side of King. A personality that many never saw.”

But to Boykin, nothing is more human than music, which King often employed to bring life to his speeches. “Music is universal. If you sing from your heart, you will reach other hearts,” she said.

King ended his 1966 speech to IWU with the spiritual he most loved: “We Shall Overcome.” “We sing this song in our movement and it has become our guiding faith,” he said.