Willamette Community Celebrates King’s Legacy

Rather than taking a holiday for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, Willamette University uses the day to begin a multitude of reflection events and activities in celebration of the civil rights leader's legacy.

Organized by students with direction from the Office of Multicultural Affairs, this year's celebration spans 10 days, through Jan. 28, making it one of Oregon's most extensive commemorations of King's work.

"We celebrate Dr. King's birthday to honor and recognize the work and personal sacrifice of the people from the civil rights movement," says Gordy Toyama, Willamette's director of multicultural affairs. "Hopefully our celebration is a time of self-reflection and a renewed commitment to providing all people with access to civil rights."

Events include music, stage and spoken word performances; community service projects; a documentary film screening; a 5K run; a self-reflective Pledge Walk; and a multimedia display on stories of oppression. All events center on the theme, "Remember. Reflect. Realize. The Dream."

"We have to know where we have been as a community to understand how we have benefited from the work of others," Toyama says. "We each have the great opportunity to create change. Change happens in small steps, whether you're educating yourself on the concerns of your community, volunteering with the intent of receiving more from the experience than giving, or conversing about important issues in a place where you can ask questions freely without feeling judged."

The first Friday after King's national holiday always features an evening performance by a national musician, writer or artist who promotes awareness of social justice issues. This year's performer was gospel group the Blind Boys of Alabama; past events have featured Ladysmith Black Mambazo, poet Nikki Giovanni and Sweet Honey in the Rock.

The Salem Multicultural Institute co-sponsored the Blind Boys of Alabama concert - just one example of how the celebration is not limited to the Willamette community. Salem community members attend many of the events, and several participate in the celebration planning. The Oregon African American Museum and Salem Health also helped sponsor events.

Undergraduate classes were cancelled during the afternoon before the concert to allow students, faculty and staff to participate in Into the Streets, a collection of service projects at sites throughout Salem.

More than 200 people served this year, in addition to 100 sorority members who participated in service the weekend before the King holiday.

"Community service serves as an excellent reminder that there are still needs to be met on personal, community and social levels, and that there are discernible steps that can be taken to meet those needs," says Matt Pitchford '12, one of the Into the Streets organizers. "Just as Dr. King sought to end injustice and help people everywhere, we can be catalysts for meaningful change."

Willamette's celebration continues through Jan. 28 with an interactive spoken word and hip-hop music performance by Mark Gonzales and SKIM, and the Tunnel of Oppression, a multimedia display on stories of injustice and oppression. To see the full schedule, visit