Last Friday, students, faculty and staff came together in the Riggs Library to reminisce about Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, message and how it continues to affect Americans’ lives today.

The event, sponsored by the MLK Planning Committee, included speeches by Brenda Atkinson-Willoughby, director of government and community relations in the Office of Public Affairs and member of the D.C. Commission on Aging, and Iyanla Vanzant, author of “Acts of Faith,” which was the 1994 Blackboard Book of the Year.

Both spoke about their experiences as young black women in America and the effect these experiences have had on their lives.

“Today, 40 years and nine months after [Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s] assassination, there is no doubt that the glass ceiling has been broken,” Atkinson-Willoughby said. “Only one out of 20 black men thought they’d see a black president in their lifetime.”

As Atkinson-Willoughby began her speech, she reflected upon her life as a young child of a middle-class family in D.C.

“I was part of a community of black educated people. The black, middle class of Washington, D.C., had formed its own community with its own doctors, schools, organizations, etc,” she said. “Poor blacks lived in another world. They lived with a lack of clean water, food and good schools.”

Atkinson-Willoughby spoke about the segregation she experienced throughout her life, even after the Supreme Court ruled for the desegregation of schools in 1954.

“When I was eight years old, I visited Oxford, N.C., with my nine-year-old sister. In the town, there were segregated churches within one block of each other,” she said. “One day, my grandma wasn’t feeling well so she sent us off to church on our own. We were running late and everybody had already gone into the church, so we hurried up the stairs and made our way in. That’s when we realized we’d walked into the wrong church. We were hoping nobody would notice us walking in late. So we quickly walked in and sat down. Not only were we noticed we were stared at.”

Vanazant also spoke of the troubles she experienced as a young black woman, which included being raped at age nine, becoming pregnant at 16 and surviving two suicide attempts, all while dealing with the pains of segregation.

“My aunt had a stroke and we had to take her to the hospital. We all knew where the hospital was – it was just two blocks away from the house,” she said. “We ended up traveling an hour and 45 minutes to get to the hospital that day, though, because that’s where the black folks’ hospital was.”

None of these obstacles ever stopped her from succeeding, however. At age 30, Vanazant graduated summa cum laude from Medgar Evers College, after which she went on to attend Queens College Law School and write her first novel, “Tapping the Power Within.”

“I learned a lot about race from my own family. I learned about class,” she said. “My grandma taught me to never let anybody abbreviate you.”

While looking to the future, Atkinson-Willoughby said that although the United States has come a long way, there is always more to be accomplished.

“Looking back, gains have been made, there have been setbacks and much more needs to be done,” she said. “A black man now holds the most powerful position in the world. I believe Dr. King would have been overjoyed.”

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