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St. Olaf celebrates, honors legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

St. Olaf College students, faculty, and staff honored the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. with a series of events that culminated in a virtual lecture by legendary civil rights activist Ruby Nell Sales.

In the weeks leading up to Martin Luther King Jr. Day, community members took part in a Connect Four Social Justice Challenge and carved intentional spaces to engage in discourse around social justice, oppression, community, and social change.

The celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day on January 18 began with a chapel service that featured talks by Associate Professor of English Joan Hepburn and Joshua Wyatt ‘21, as well as music by Noel Patterson ‘21, Audrey Lane-Getaz ‘22, and the Viking Chorus. Watch the service below.

Later in the day, nationally recognized human rights activist, public theologian, and social critic Ruby Nell Sales delivered a virtual talk focused on Rev. King’s question “Where do we go from here: Chaos or community?” She shared her own experience with the civil rights movement, noting that she and other activists like Martin Luther King Jr. were raised by parents and grandparents who laid the groundwork for a powerful social-spiritual movement. They saw themselves not as they were, she said, but who they could become in a society where democracy could thrive and become the beloved community.

Sales encouraged students to think about the world they want to build, and she emphasized the power in working together in community with others.

“This is your season to define your life and speak to what is most important to you,” she noted. “What you say and what you think should come from the very nature of who you are as a person. Where do you want to go from here? Do you want to build community or go toward chaos?”

Ruby Nell Sales
Nationally recognized human rights activist, public theologian, and social critic Ruby Nell Sales

Sales is the founder of the SpiritHouse Project, a national nonprofit that uses the arts, research, education, action, and spirituality to bring diverse peoples together to work for racial, economic, and gender justice, as well as for spiritual maturity. Recognizing a need to nurture the hope that still resides in young people as well as to revive an intergenerational community and human compassion, Sales is dedicated to strengthening the hope, courage, reason, and will of young people to individually and collectively stand up for themselves with dignity, clarity, and nonviolent persistence. 

In addition to these events, students and faculty members across the campus community reflected on the legacy of Rev. King’s work in a variety of ways. Students in the Music and Social Justice class with Professor of Music David Carter and Assistant Professor of Music Emery Stephens listened to, studied, and shared their reflections on “Why? (The King of Love Is Dead)” by Gene Taylor, recorded by Nina Simone. Take a listen and reflect on this poignant song to honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

“Nina Simone approached her stage with Black lives at the forefront of her music. Her song ‘Why? (The King of Love is Dead)’ encapsulates how Martin Luther King Jr. was an activist so full of hope and love — one who was constantly preaching peace and tirelessly fighting for equality. The lyric ‘[w]e can all shed tears but it won’t change a thing’ speaks to the need for those still living, particularly White folx with privilege, to move past empathy and into non-performative activism.” — Gabbie Holtzman ’21, Majors: Music, English, Race and Ethnic Studies, and Women’s and Gender Studies

“‘Why? (The King of Love Is Dead)’ asks a very difficult question: How can we move on when we don’t know the road ahead? I understand the lyrics to this beautiful song as a reminder to grieve by celebrating Martin Luther King Jr.’s life rather than tunnel-visioning on his death. As Nina Simone states, ‘Love thy neighbor was his creed’ and although that can be hard to do in wake of such a tragedy, we must still try.” — Julian Malaby ‘21, Majors: Music and Russian Language 

“Nina Simone’s performance mirrors the anguish, confusion, and mourning that many Americans have felt in the past weeks, months, and years in the fight against fascism and tyranny. Her music overflows with emotion that translates the knots in my heart better than words have been able to. Through music, I can better face my history and form a clearer image of what the future can — and should — hold.” — Sam Mast ‘21, Major: Music Education (Instrumental)

“Gene Taylor’s ‘Why? (The King of Love is Dead)’ tenderly yet decisively articulates the tragedy of MLK’s death while uplifting the importance of his message. Nina Simone’s clear voice floats among the bare piano line and communicates with one’s soul. As the drums and guitar sneak in toward the middle of the song, it’s message settles into a composed assurance: in unfathomable uncertainty, we must turn and return to love.” — Leah Ramsey ’21, Majors: English, Religion, and Race and Ethnic Studies

This recording of Viking Chorus performing “Glory” (from “Selma”) on April 13, 2019, was played during our Martin Luther King Jr. Day chapel service.

“The words rapped in that arrangement by Sammy Rivera ’22 and David Ortiz ’22 are prescient and illuminate what so many of my Black siblings have articulated for decades, if not centuries,” says Viking Chorus Conductor Tesfa Wondemagegnehu.

The movement is a rhythm to us
Freedom is like religion to us
Justice is juxtapositionin’ us
Justice for all just ain’t specific enough
One son died, his spirit is revisitin’ us
True and livin’ livin’ in us, resistance is us
That’s why Rosa sat on the bus
That’s why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up
When it go down we woman and man up
They say, “Stay down,” and we stand up
Shots, we on the ground, the camera panned up
King pointed to the mountain top and we ran up