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A tribute to the dream

Civil rights leader Robert Moses pio­neered voting reg­is­tra­tion in the seg­re­gated Southern state of Mis­sis­sippi in the 1960s, sur­viving relent­less vio­lence and intim­i­da­tion by prac­ticing what he ref­ereed to as “guerilla warfare.”

“I was based in a com­mu­nity I could dis­ap­pear in. Day or night I could knock on a door and someone would give me a bed to sleep in and food to eat,” Moses told award-​​winning broad­cast jour­nalist Pam Cross in an inter­view at North­eastern on Thursday after­noon at the university’s annual Martin Luther King, Jr. con­vo­ca­tion. “I lived with a net­work of people who had my back and showed me how to live in Mississippi.”

The con­ver­sa­tion served as the cen­ter­piece of the hour­long event, “A Tribute to the Dream,” which hon­ored Dr. King’s legacy and com­mem­o­rated the 50th anniver­sary of the Civil Rights Act through a series of visual nar­ra­tives, musical per­for­mances, and candid dis­cus­sions. The event was part of “50 Years For­ward: The Journey Con­tinues,” Northeastern’s year­long com­mem­o­ra­tion of the people, events, and orga­ni­za­tions ded­i­cated to civil rights in America and around the world.

“We’re here to cel­e­brate and honor the legacy of those who have gone before us, those who have fought for the rights and free­doms of all Amer­i­cans,” said host Robert Jose, asso­ciate dean for cul­tural, res­i­den­tial, and spir­i­tual life.

In addi­tion to hon­oring the Civil Rights Act’s 50th anniver­sary, “50 Years For­ward” is also cel­e­brating the 45th anniver­sary of Northeastern’s John D. O’Bryant African-​​American Insti­tute and the 40th anniver­sary of the Depart­ment of African Amer­ican Studies. It is spon­sored by the Office of Stu­dent Affairs and the Col­lege of Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties, which have helped orga­nize more than a dozen upcoming events.

On Thursday, Cross and Moses dis­cussed his path-​​breaking work as a civil rights leader in the Jim Crow South. Moses, she said, was a promi­nent figure in the civil rights move­ment as a field sec­re­tary for the Stu­dent Non-​​Violent Coor­di­nating Com­mittee, which orga­nized sit-​​ins and freedom rides. In 1961, he ini­ti­ated SNCC’s Mis­sis­sippi voter reg­is­tra­tion project and was appointed its director in 1962. Twenty years later, Moses received a MacArthur Foun­da­tion Fel­low­ship and sub­se­quently founded the Algebra Project, a non­profit orga­ni­za­tion that uses math­e­matics as an orga­nizing tool to ensure quality public school edu­ca­tion for every stu­dent in America.

The country, Moses said, is run­ning out of time to edu­cate its youth. “America must decide that young people are worthy of an edu­ca­tion,” he explained. “We are a con­sti­tu­tional people and a quality edu­ca­tion is a con­sti­tu­tional right.” In other words, Cross said, “voter reg­is­tra­tion was key but edu­ca­tion is a pathway to life.”

In his remarks, Ralph Martin, senior vice pres­i­dent and gen­eral counsel, chal­lenged the North­eastern com­mu­nity to join Moses’ fight for equality, noting that a vic­tory would trans­form Dr. King’s dream into a reality for the marginalized.

“My own belief is that this struggle should be everyone’s work,” said Martin, who char­ac­ter­ized Moses as a self­less icon. “Whether in small ges­tures or pro­found mea­sures, we all need to con­tinue the work that will help our com­mu­ni­ties realize the ideals that Dr. King acti­vated and that Bob Moses con­tinues to pursue.”

Promi­nent stu­dents, alumni, and uni­ver­sity leaders echoed Martin’s sen­ti­ments in a four-​​minute video clip in which they reflected on the impact of the civil rights movement.

“The mes­sage of Dr. King gave us hope,” said North­eastern Pres­i­dent Joseph E. Aoun. “It allowed us to see that we can be agents of change.”

“Ever since we opened our doors more than 100 years ago, we’ve under­stood that no one should be mar­gin­al­ized or excluded or lim­ited in life in any way,” noted Mar­garet Burnham, a pro­fessor of law and director of the Civil Rights and Restora­tive Jus­tice Project. “That itself is our foun­da­tional com­mit­ment to social jus­tice and civil rights.”

As in the civil rights move­ment, freedom of expres­sion fig­ured promi­nently at Thursday’s event. Sand ani­ma­tion artist Char­lene Lanzel paid tribute to Dr. King by cre­ating a por­trait of the civil rights icon while Anjimile Chithambo, AMD’16, per­formed an acoustic ren­di­tion of the summer anthem “Wake Me Up.”

Dis­tilled Har­mony, Northeastern’s co-​​ed a-​​cappella group, and spe­cial guest Kwesi Abakah, a red­shirt freshman on the men’s bas­ket­ball team, per­formed “Feeling Good,” an Amer­ican stan­dard pop­u­lar­ized in 1965 by song­writer and civil rights activist Nina Simone.

Dressed in black and bedaz­zled in gold, the tal­ented vocal­ists put a unique spin on the classic tune, lending new meaning to the song’s lyrics, “It’s a new dawn. It’s a new day.”

The event ended on a high note—literally and metaphorically—when the Oliver Wen­dell Holmes Ele­men­tary School Choir led the singing of the spir­i­tu­ally uplifting song “This Little Light of Mine.”

“This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine,” the kids from Boston’s Dorch­ester neigh­bor­hood sang as hun­dreds of stu­dents, fac­ulty, and staff clapped along. “Every day in every way, I’m gonna let my little light shine.”

On Friday, North­eastern will host a lec­ture by Dou­glas Blackmon, the Pulitzer Prize-​​winning author of Slavery by Another Name: The Re-​​Enslavement of Black Amer­i­cans from the Civil War to World War II. Other upcoming events include a cel­e­bra­tion of African Amer­ican vet­erans on Thursday, Feb. 6; a panel dis­cus­sion on race and democ­racy on Friday, Feb. 7; and a con­fer­ence on gender and iden­tity in the age of Obama on Friday, March 21.

Gallery 360’s cur­rent exhibit fea­tures civil rights era pho­tog­raphy from the Uni­ver­sity Libraries’ Archives and Spe­cial Col­lec­tions, including por­traits of promi­nent fig­ures who fought for equality—namely Jackie Robinson, Coretta Scott King, and Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy.

Use the Twitter hashtag #50yrsfwdNU to stay con­nected to the series and visit north​eastern​.edu/​5​0​y​e​a​r​s​f​o​r​w​ard for a full list of activities.

– By Jason Kornwitz

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