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Locals incorporate arts in Martin Luther King Day celebrations

Tickets for Kelly-Strayhorn performances. (credit: Tommy Hoffman/Photo Staff) Tickets for Kelly-Strayhorn performances. (credit: Tommy Hoffman/Photo Staff) Dancers at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theatre perform at the East Liberty Celebrates Martin Luther King, Jr! event last Saturday. (credit: Tommy Hoffman/Photo Staff) Dancers at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theatre perform at the East Liberty Celebrates Martin Luther King, Jr! event last Saturday. (credit: Tommy Hoffman/Photo Staff) Students gathered from multiple local high schools to commemorate King with poems, songs, and dances. (credit: Tommy Hoffman/Photo Staff) Students gathered from multiple local high schools to commemorate King with poems, songs, and dances. (credit: Tommy Hoffman/Photo Staff)

Regarded as the champion of the civil rights movement and one of the greatest orators of all time, Martin Luther King Jr. was truly an individual who changed history. His masterful speeches motivated millions, while his non-violent method of protest ushered in a new era of peaceful public movements for change. In an effort to keep his legacy alive and to commemorate his life and accomplishments, the Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations at Carnegie Mellon promise to be both an informative and appreciative look at how far the country has come and a reminder of what work must still be done to truly ensure equality in our society today.

While many students at Carnegie Mellon have been celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day with a half day off from school for as long as they can remember, most are probably unaware of the struggles behind its being established as a national holiday. A bill to establish King’s birthday, Jan. 15, as a national holiday was twice introduced to Congress, only passing the second time. Some states, such as Illinois, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, had already established state-wide holidays commemorating the activist’s birth, but the Southern Christian Leadership Conference collected 3 million signatures in order to press the government to make the day a national holiday. The first attempt was stalled in Congress for eight years until it received the support of President Jimmy Carter, though it was ultimately defeated in the House by a margin of five votes.

King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, was not disheartened. She worked a political angle, garnering the support of governors and mayors across the country. In 1980, Stevie Wonder also lent his talents to the cause; his song “Happy Birthday” motivated the public support for the holiday to be made national. With 6 million signatures in favor of the holiday, the second bill was passed by the House but faced an even tougher fight in the Senate. At last, Martin Luther King Jr. Day was signed into law in November 1983 by President Reagan, though it was not officially celebrated until 1986. Even then, the holiday was still not celebrated by all states under that name. Many protests occurred through the years to rectify this, one of the most famous being the moving of Super Bowl XXVII from Arizona to California. At long last, though it might seem surprising given it how recently it occurred, all 50 states celebrated the holiday in 2000. This year marks the first decade in which all 50 states have joined in the festivities.

Celebrations happening on campus and in the Pittsburgh area this year involve a medley of the arts as a tribute to King. Just as the arts have been a boon to the civil rights movement in the past, they continue to provide a sounding board and a venue for new ideas to be expressed.

The arts have always been integral to the spread of hope and belief, as well as effective at rallying people to action at injustices suffered. It was no different during King’s protests. While Wonder’s hit song helped to propel the second bill for Martin Luther King Jr. Day through Congress, it was by no means the only contribution the arts had in the civil rights movement. Other famous songs of protest include Bob Marley’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Eve of Destruction” by Barry McGuire, not to mention countless other protest songs chanted at marches and demonstrations. To this day, popular songs are still used to protest political dealings, current events, and most often war.

Rhetoric has also held a treasured place in civil rights history thanks to King. His famous speeches not only inspired his listeners with their content, but also by their adroit choice of words and skillful presentation. Over the course of his involvement with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference as well as independently, King’s command of his audience and infallible oratory acumen allowed him to win over countless supporters and earn the admiration of many others. According to AmericanRhetoric.com, King has three speeches in the 100 greatest speeches of the 20th century. His “I Have a Dream” speech holds the number-one spot, while the two others make the top 50 and one of them, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” is in the top 15.

Through music and voice, the civil rights movement relied on the arts to help carry its message. Now, the tradition of the arts as a medium for ideas and new thought is continued in Pittsburgh and on campus. At Carnegie Mellon, the observation of the holiday will kick off at noon today with singing, verse, and interpretation from the School of Drama and Music in Kirr Commons in the University Center. Next will follow President Jared Cohon’s State of Diversity address in McConomy Auditorium. At 1:30 p.m., high school students and students who have received awards from the creative writing program, Student Affairs, and the Office of the President will read works in the Rangos Hall in which they discuss their personal experiences of race and discrimination. Also included in the festivities are a puppet show and a candlelit procession occurring later in the day. (For a full schedule of events taking place at the university for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, please see the front page.)

In the Pittsburgh area, many activities are being held to celebrate diversity. Oakland will host its eighth annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the Park, which will consist of ice skating, sledding, and art projects in Schenley Park on Monday from 1 to 4 p.m. Other areas around the city will hold various events: The Carnegie Science Center will offer free admission, the Campbell Memorial Chapel at Chatham University will also offer a program of spoken word, song, and dance, as well as many others places around Pittsburgh. Many venues are also collecting donations for the Haiti relief effort as a tribute to the work of King.

East Liberty has long been famous for its celebrations of the holiday. This year, the Kelly-Strayhorn Theatre featured the performance East Liberty Celebrates Martin Luther King, Jr.! on Saturday. The event was free and combined the talents of many local dance, theater, and hip-hop groups to form its tribute.

Let Freedom Sing! is also another fun event going on during the holiday, taking place on Monday starting at 7 p.m. at the Franklin Regional High School in Murrysville. The event features a musical tribute to King, and while free, any donations will go toward building a Martin Luther King Jr. monument on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

While students may be happy to have no classes after 12:30 p.m., it is important to remember why exactly these celebrations are being held. Though King was a brilliant orator and someone who believed in equality, he was also courageous as seen by leading peaceful protests despite fierce opposition. While having classes until lunchtime might come as an unwelcome change for some, the activities happening on campus and all around the city ensure that students will not only be able to find a fun way to spend their afternoon, but also honor the person whose great sense of conviction, skill, and bravery gave so much more to this country than a free Monday in January.