For the fourth year in a row, the Swarthmore campus and community kicked off a week long celebration and remembrance of Martin Luther King Jr. with a day of service on January 21, 2019. This week long event was a collaboration with the Black Cultural Center, the Office of Religious and Spiritual life, and the President’s Office. The events for the week included the day of service, a film screening and talk back for the film, “Selma,” on January 21, 2019, a candlelight vigil on January 23, 2019, and ended with a Martin Luther King Jr. Collection on January 25, 2019. The well-attended events fostered community bonding, according to some, but some students feel that they also failed to genuinely engage with Dr. King’s legacy.
Prior to the establishment of Swarthmore’s MLK week, the Black Cultural Center and the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life hosted luncheons, talks, and activities for years geared towards remembering Martin Luther King Jr. and his message. It was not until the 2015-2016 school year that a push from President Valerie Smith with the help of Dean Dion Lewis, assistant dean and coordinator of the Black Cultural Center, and Joyce Tompkins, director of religious and spiritual life, that a structured week dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr. was created and that classes were cancelled on MLK Day.
“To me, the service day is a big triumph that our community has taken MLK Day as not just an ordinary day, and invited others to come out and do service for the larger community because I think that’s what we should do in honor of Dr. King. Not just say it’s an extra day off, but to come together in honor of him and service,” Tompkins said.
The MLK Day of Service is an “organized community service project to benefit the youth of Chester, PA. Community members assembled packages of collected school supplies to be distributed to Chester Community Charter School, Chester Eastside Ministries, Chester Boys & Girls Club, God’s House of Glory and Community Action Agency of Delaware County,” read a school wide email that Dean Lewis sent.
To prepare for the festivities this year, the Black Cultural Center and the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life began planning and asking for school supplies donations from the community at the beginning of the Fall 2018 semester in which they received support from staff, students, businesses like the Swarthmore Campus & Community Store, and community members.
“We started working on this last semester because there are a couple of components for the day of service. First it starts with finding the after school tutoring sites that we give the materials to, so we have to figure out which sites we are going to work with it and what they need. Then we have to collect donations, and when it gets close to the time, we have to get our volunteers,” Tompkins said.
Aside from programming early to account for the series of parts associated with the day of service, the BCC and IC also believed it was a way of ensuring that there would be plenty of time to collect enough supplies to fill the backpacks.
“The day of service is this big event that has been in the works for six to seven months. In knowing that some of our colleagues are parents and they are going out school shopping anyways, we start telling people early July, ‘as you are school shopping, think about MLK Day in January’. We do get some trinkles of stuff in throughout the semester,” Dean Lewis said.
After a semester of collecting and sorting supplies, volunteers, community members, staff, and students gathered in Upper Tarble on MLK day to begin making backpacks for the Chester, PA community. Among those in attendance was BCC intern Terence Thomas ’21, who worked closely with the BCC, IC, and all the volunteers.
“We collected everything and even had some students come back early to sort the materials because we had a bunch of supplies. On Monday morning, we laid everything out on the table and handed everyone a list of items specific to the charity they were making backpacks for. They just walked around the tables, collected the supplies, and put them in the backpacks,” Thomas said. “It was a great community bonding experience.”
The backpacks serviced over 170 students from Chester ranging from the ages of five to 18 by providing backpacks full of school supplies to five agencies: Chester Community Charter School, Chester Eastside Ministries, Chester Boys & Girls Club, God’s House of Glory and Community Action Agency of Delaware County.
As the week continued, the BCC and IC hosted numerous events to honor and celebrate the ideas, contributions, and memory of Martin Luther King Jr. With these events came a sense of community and yearning to maintain Martin Luther King Jr’s message throughout the year.
“One of the things that is important is that this truly is for the community, but I think there are ways that we should think about not just doing these things for the day or the week. We really need to understand that Martin possessed certain personality traits and tenets that we should all live by. There are so many ways that we can use our talents to help those around us,” Dean Lewis said.
While the intent of these festivities was to commemorate the work and contributions of Martin Luther King Jr., some students, such as Taylor Morgan ’19, felt as though Swarthmore’s attempt did not fully honor his legacy or call attention to the critical issues at hand.
“To me, the Day of Service was more symbolic than effective. It mostly symbolized doing service in honor of Dr. King, but the problem is that it isn’t connected to larger systems and questions like, ‘why do we have a day of service?’, ‘why is there poverty?’ and ‘why do these kids need backpacks with supplies in the first place’,” Morgan said.
Morgan was asked by Tompkins on the day of service to attend and recite a quote at the MLK Collection. Though Morgan said she was slightly skeptical, she agreed to be a part of the event. Upon receiving the quotes for the Collection, she said she felt angry and uncomfortable with the message they conveyed.
“Some of the quotes talk about violence being a descending spiral and only love being able to drive out hate. I think I and Dr. King, especially later in his career, would agree that America was a settler colonial nation that was founded on violence and genocide,” Morgan said. “To condense that narrative and history into the idea that we should steer away from violence and in our movements not perpetuate hate or speak out in a way that is deemed an unrespectable form of protest is not doing Dr. King justice and in my view, reinforces those same structures of white supremacy that Dr. King was trying to dismantle.”
In her discomfort, Morgan reached out to friends about how to approach and reconcile her feelings with the collection. The night before collection, Morgan headed to Twitter where she found a list of quotes she felt were more representative of Dr. King’s message. After making a Facebook post about her feelings towards the event, five students volunteered to read some of the quotes on her list. On the day of collection, Morgan, along with Abby Diebold ’20, Gabriel Evans ’19, Killian McGinnis ’19, and AynNichelle Slappy ’20, planned to recite the quotations Morgan collected.
“Everyone came in with their little slips of paper that I cut out the night before. Abby, Gabriel, and Annie said their quotes, but then I was surprised the ceremony got cut short before me and another student could read our quotes, but I’m not sure why,” Morgan said. “The room seemed to get uncomfortable when Gabe was reading the quote about the white moderate. People weren’t expecting that, but I think that was the point.”
In the future, Morgan wants to increase the dialogue being had around MLK, his message, his legacy, and Swarthmore’s positionality within the grand scheme of these structures Dr. King was trying to fight against.
“I think there at least needs to be acknowledgement of using MLK’s legacy for their own comfort rather than engaging with really difficult and uncomfortable concepts like why does our institution have almost 3 billion dollars in wealth, but the most we are doing is packing backpacks once a year,” Morgan said. “Maybe have a panel to think critically about Dr. King’s negative favorability rating or why he was assassinated and the death threats he got or the context of his really radical and revolutionary ideas. I think we should be asking questions that get at the larger systems of violence Dr. King was advocating for.”
Swarthmore put forth months of time and effort to celebrate Dr. King’s memory and message through service and community collections, but for some students, much was left unsaid. As Swarthmore continues their tradition of commemorating Dr. King, there is a call for going beyond just the day or week and addressing the root of his legacy and ideas.