Maryam Mohamed/The Hoya Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) spoke about voting rights in the District as part of Georgetown’s ‘Let Freedom Ring’ Martin Luther King celebration Wednesday in ICC auditorium.

“When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: `Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!'”

These words, delivered by Martin Luther King, Jr. in Washington, D.C. in 1963, describe the vision of freedom that has been sought after for over a century in the U.S. and worldwide. Georgetown University’s “Let Freedom Ring” celebration commemorates the legacy of Dr. King through several events throughout the holiday weekend planned by various community members including the Martin Luther King, Jr. Planning Committee. Planned activities will include a speech by George Mason Professor Roger Wilkins, a screening of Ghosts of Mississippi, a Martin Luther King, Jr. mass in Dahlgren Chapel and a performance by Roberta Flack and the Georgetown University Gospel Choir at Kennedy Center.

Although significant achievements have been accomplished through the efforts of U.S. civil rights leaders such as Harriet Tubman, Clarence Thomas, Rosa Parks, Ida B. Wells, Ella Baker and Dr. King, as well as student, community and political organizations such as Student Non-violence Coordinating Committee, Congress of Racial Equality, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, social injustice continues to be a pertinent issue to many U.S. citizens. Such has been the message of Georgetown’s “Let Freedom Ring” events, ranging from panel discussions regarding “D.C. Voting Representation” and “Women in Civil Rights” to student reflections in Sellinger Lounge and Georgetown community participation in Greater D.C. Cares’ MLK Holiday of Service.

Dr. Dorothy Height, chair and president of Emerita National Council of Negro Women, spoke in Gaston Hall Thursday afternoon about the effect of Dr. King on the nation. She argued that civil disobedience strategies, non-violent action, political activism and human service have opened many doors for minority citizens. These include the right to vote and to equally use public accommodations.

“What are we working against? No longer blatant prejudice, or bigotry, but institutionalized racism,” Height said. “Everybody talks about Martin Luther King, Jr. and his dream. On his march on Washington he wasn’t merely delivering a dream, but an explicit objection to a system that denied opportunity and rights.”

By institutionalized racism King was referring to government, educational and social mechanisms that were improved by acts such as Brown vs. Board of Education and the 1964 Voting Rights Act, but have resulted in significant disparities apparent in college populations, political offices and business executive offices.

Height has received over 50 awards and honors for her lifetime commitment to social justice, including the JKF Memorial Award and National Council of Jewish Women Award.

Georgetown Law Professor Elizabeth Patterson, who moderated Thursday’s discussion, remembered King as a true patriot, whose rallying cry during speeches and marches called for the justice promised by the founders of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence.

“`All I want America to do is to be true to what is written on paper. This will be the highest form of patriotism,'” Patterson said, quoting King.

U.S. political controversy has been particularly significant in light of the anniversary of Dr. King’s birthday. President Bush announced on Wednesday, Dr. King’s birthday, his opposition to the University of Michigan’s affirmative action program. Bush claimed strong support of racial diversity in higher education, but ultimately labeled the affirmative action program as a `quota system’ that rejects or admits students on the sole basis of race.

“President Bush’s public announcement was significant for two main reasons. First, it relays an anti-affirmative action policy message to the Supreme Court, who ultimately decides if the policy is lawful or not,” Height said. “Bush’s opposition also depicts a common distortion of the policy, which suggests that minorities are receiving automatic admission based on one factor.”

Height then finished her thoughts with a metaphor describing current disparities. “The need for affirmative action policy can be described by the front and back wheels of a car – without assisted opportunity, the back wheels will never catch up to the front wheels,” Height said.

Albert Wat, director of DC Schools Project and organizer of the university’s Martin Luther King, Jr., remembrance celebration, also expressed his reaction to Bush’s announcement and warned that a Supreme Court decision regarding affirmative action could severely change the nature of race relations and higher education.

“I think everyone – no matter what their color, how much their family earns, where they live – should be able to aspire to whatever they want to. It’s sad to me that there are kids who don’t even know what they can hope to be,” he said. “I hope that this week’s events will remind the university community [of] the importance of the victories that have been won in the past and make us pay more attention to the current struggles that need to be fought – both on and off campus.”

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