Connecticut College kicks off MLK events with discussion on sermon against Vietnam War
New London — Every year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, speakers often trot out the same quotes, ones that, taken without context, are relatively uncontroversial entreaties for peace and equality.
That's not how Connecticut College wanted to honor the late civil rights icon.
The college is hosting three events this week and next to commemorate King. They began Monday afternoon with the playing of a 42-minute recording of his April 1967 sermon, "Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam" followed by a discussion.
"We know that this speech in particular made MLK a threat in America, and oftentimes when we think of MLK we don't think of him as a threat, more so as a peacemaker," said Truth Hunter, director of race and ethnicity programs at the college's Unity House Multicultural Center.
King characterized the Vietnam War "as an unjust, evil, and futile war" and a "cruel manipulation of the poor," considering young, black men were sent thousands of miles away to guarantee liberties they hadn't found in East Harlem or Southwest Georgia.
He criticized the press for praising his approach of nonviolence toward segregationists but condemning nonviolence toward Vietnamese children.
"I speak out against this war because I am disappointed with America," King said. "And there can be no great disappointment where there is not great love. I am disappointed with our failure to deal positively and forthrightly with the triple evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism."
He repeatedly called America "arrogant," saying, "Don't let anybody make you think that God chose America as his divine, messianic force to be a sort of policeman of the whole world."
More than 20 people came to the event, including Connecticut College students, staff from the counseling center, and Coast Guard Academy students. One commented after listening to the speech that many "only talk about the love message of MLK, and totally just skip over the part where he's actually really radical."
One thing that jumped out to Kyla Hughley, a senior at the Coast Guard Academy, was King's analogy that Good Friday comes before Easter.
"You have to be sad and you have to go through some suffering, but eventually he will rise and you will rise," she said. "Things will get better."
Jose Flores, a counselor on campus, commented that the history of the United States "is built on taking what we want and killing," with the concept of manifest destiny. Hunter added that the founding fathers came to America because they were fleeing persecution, but the violence they learned set the foundation for the violence upon which America was built.
The conversation turned to capitalism, with some discussing its entanglement with racism. Connecticut College senior Shira Boyar commented that capitalism is a zero-sum game, that "for someone to win, someone else must lose."
Angela Nzegwu, interim director of religious and spiritual programs at Connecticut College, talked about choosing between comfort and agony when deciding whether to speak up, and about how America was built on both religious freedom and slavery, creating a complicated narrative.
She connected King's quote on disappointment and love with students complaining about Connecticut College, saying it comes from a place of "deep longing and deep care."
Overall, Nzegwu said, the MLK events at the school are about collectivism. On Monday at 5 p.m., there will be an event about black women who contributed to King's activism, and next Wednesday at 4 p.m., the college will "bring to light the various communities that support and upheld his ministry and service to the Civil Rights Movement."
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