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Welcome remarks for Harry Belafonte keynote speech

Good evening. I am Charles Whitaker, and I had the honor and pleasure of serving along with University Chaplain Timothy Stevens as co-chair of the committee charged with planning the Evanston campus’s events commemorating the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.


Before I continue, may we have another round of applause for the wonderful Northwestern University Jazz Ensemble under the direction of Victor Goines; and also for the Alice Millar chapel choir and the Northwestern Community Ensemble under the direction of Stephen Alltop. 

And allow me to take another moment of chairman’s privilege. I would like to ask the members of the MLK planning committee to stand and be recognized. These wonderful people – students, staff and faculty – selflessly stepped up and on very short notice helped to plan and execute nearly a week’s work of programming culminating in tonight’s event.

There is an African proverb that says it takes a village to raise a child, and what I’ve come to realize during the course of the last couple of weeks is that it takes a small country sometimes to plan a university program. And as anyone who has done event planning knows, there are times when you’re in the throes of it, and you’re feeling beleaguered and churlish and petulant, that you ask yourself “What am I doing this for?”

Which is a really good question to contemplate before we proceed. I want us to look deep inside and ask ourselves, “Why do we do this?” Why do we gather in this beautiful space every January around Dr. King’s birthday? Is it merely out of obligation, out of habit? Is this all about ritual and hollow ceremony?

Those are the questions that I wrestled with as we tried to develop a a program that we thought would be truly fitting for the occasion. What I’d like to think -- as we spend yet another January listening to stirring music and hearing what we anticipate will be an inspiring message -- is that we gather to remind ourselves that as a world-class institution – an institution that aspires to be a beacon in the darkness -- our mission is greater than the credentialing of smart young people or the promulgation of interesting scholarship or even the incubation of medical, technological and scientific breakthroughs. 

We gather on this evening, or so it is my hope, to declare that individually and institutionally we have at Northwestern and all those assembled here have a responsibility to make our community, our country and our planet a more just and equitable place. 

And so yes, my colleagues, students, esteemed administrators, members of the Evanston community and beyond, I welcome you on behalf of my fellow committee members to revel in beautiful music and to contemplate what I certainly hope will be a stirring keynote address. But I also challenge and implore to leave this evening taking to heart and rededicating yourselves to the principles for which Dr. King lived and died. I welcome you to think about making a difference in the lives of the less fortunate, about committing yourself to the expansion of opportunities and to the inclusion of the historically excluded. That is the purpose that compels us to gather each January, and it is with that purpose in mind that we welcome you to contemplate, to celebrate and be motivated by the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King.

Thank you.