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Keeping the Dream Alive: Exeter Observes MLK Day

Kenji Yoshino '87 (r), keynote speaker for MLK Day, is greeted by two students after his remarks

January 18, 2013

45 years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Exeter students paused from their classes and assignments today to honor the fallen civil rights leader and participate in a day of presentations, workshops and seminars.

This year's theme, "Keeping the Dream Alive: Identity and Justice in the 21st Century," featured a keynote address by NYU's Chief Justice Earl Warren Professor of Constitutional Law, Kenji Yoshino '87, who spoke on one of his recent books, Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights.

During his 50-minute address, Yoshino, a civil rights activist and legal scholar, defined the term "covering," as a means to downplay an individual's characteristics in order to be accepted in society's mainstream.

"I want you to take away from this talk three words: conversion, passing and covering," he said. "I love this word 'covering,' as decades after MLK, racial minorities are still asked to downplay their identities." Yoshino, who is gay, explained that "all of these words have to do with assimilation and had to do with my experience."

"Have we really lived up to Dr. King's ideals? How far do you think we've come to living up to those ideals when we ask minorities to . . . fade into the mainstream? I don't think Dr. King would say we've made it to the mountaintop."

Yoshino said he believes the battle for equality will not be won in courtrooms, but by individuals participating in honest, open conversations with one another.

"Every single person has a stake in what we are doing here today. This is not some minority issue. This is not some issue that concerns somebody else. This is something that every person in this room is affected by," he said. 

The celebration began on Thursday evening with student readings, dance and musical performances held in the Assembly Hall.

Following the keynote, students selected from 9 workshops to attend, each focusing on a range of issues, including assimilation, social justice, inclusion and forgiveness.

Student members of this year's Martin Luther King Jr. Day Committee began work on today's presentations last February. Upper Asile, from Atlanta, was surprised at how closely she has connected with filmmaker Carlton Mackey, one of the workshop presenters at Exeter's MLK Day. "We learned we live about five miles from each other, he taught at my old school, and we know many of the same people."

Senior Ashley, from River Forest, IL, says, "We wanted diversity in all aspects of this year's workshops and discussions – not only about issues surrounding men and women and black and white, but about gays, the disabled, the disenfranchised and those from other cultures. I'm proud of our efforts."

Here's a brief list of the 9 breakout sessions attended by students:

"Healing Racism: Theater for Transformation" — Poet and racial justice advocate Amanda Kemp and violinist Michael T. Jamanis performed a workshop on memory, forgiveness and transformation.

Follow up Conversation with Yoshino — students held a discussion with the speaker.

The Meeting -- a play performed by Jameel Mohammed '13 and Lazaro Cesar '15 in which MLK Jr. and Malcolm X meet for an imagined second time. 

"The Southern Poverty Law Center: Fighting Hate, Teaching Tolerance and Seeking Justice" — Discussion of the rise in hate groups in the U.S.

Mississippi Innocence — A documentary challenging beliefs of the criminal justice system in America, following the wrongful convictions of two African American men from Mississippi.

The Prep School Negro — Filmmaker Andre Robert Lee examines the personal cost of a prep school education to himself and others others in this film, followed by discussion with the filmmaker.

Whitopia and ObamaNation: America's Future in a 'Post-Racial' Age — Author and political commentator Rich Benjamin discussed with students his travels of two years and more than 26,000 miles through 'the heart of white America' to learn more about this phenomenon.

17 Degrees Ain't Nothing — Filmmaker Mackey exposes homelessness in Atlanta in his film, and led a workshop with students.

"Identity Theatrics" — 'Artivist' Vanessa Roberts explored with students the personal investment necessary for transformational change in social justice.

— Famebridge Witherspoon