A person speaks to a gathered group.
The kickoff discussion Sunday at James Branch Cabell Library was aimed at community conversations about putting King’s message into action. (Photo by Shanna Brandt, Division for Inclusive Excellence.)

'Fierce urgency of now’ conversations used to kick off VCU’s MLK Celebration Week

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People who attended Virginia Commonwealth University’s kickoff event for Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Week came to draw sustenance from like-minded people, to connect to King’s message of civic involvement and to honor the civil rights leader. 

Conversations were key to the event, with the theme “Reflections on the Fierce Urgency of Now.” The discussion Sunday at James Branch Cabell Library was aimed at community conversations about putting King’s message into action.

“These are deeply personal issues and they deserve the space of this committed intimacy that comes from being in dialogue together,” said Archana A. Pathak, Ph.D., special assistant to the vice president of the VCU Division for Inclusive Excellence, which sponsored the event, and an associate professor in the Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women's Studies. “This to me reflects the values to be at VCU, to be committed to diversity and inclusion and what Dr. King was committed to as well.”

Jamelle S. Wilson, Ed.D., facilitated the conversation that brought together diverse members of the community. Wilson, dean of the School of Professional and Continuing Studies at the University of Richmond, used the short film “Woke Vote,” about a voter activism organization focused in the South, as a springboard for the discussion.

Wilson pointed out that King used the phrase “fierce urgency of now” twice during speeches. She began the discussion with his words during his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech at the march in Washington, D.C.

Wilson began the discussion asking the crowd: “What in the video resonated for you, what does it make you think about, and what does the ‘fierce urgency of now’ phrase make you think of?”

At one table, Charles Klink, Ph.D., VCU senior vice provost for student affairs; La’Star Gilliam, a VCU undergraduate pre-med student; Carlton Goode, an academic adviser in University Academic Advising; and Sherrod Miller, a Mississippi resident, shared their reflections on the many provocative questions Wilson posed about critical issues and their own personal civic engagement.

“This event brought up that sometimes it may be good to align ourselves with older generations. A lot of the people I was sitting with are engaged on campus and I didn’t know,” Gilliam said after the event. “Sometimes we forget some of the messages that MLK preached. This event made me think about what am I doing for my community beyond myself. And this reminded me that I need to be more engaged in my community than I am right now and more engaged with my identity.” 

Gilliam said she liked the discussion format because it allowed many people to speak and helped her learn about the history, values and power of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee that was actively registering voters in the early 1960s, similar to the Woke Vote program.

James Holland, a Chesterfield County supervisor and accounting instructor at VCU; Joseph Mason, a retired social work instructor; and Eric S. King, a political science instructor, shared with the crowd their experiences in the movement and how that inspired them to engage in civil society as well as what has changed over the generations.

“King’s ‘fierce urgency of now’ phrase was in reaction to [the vague language in Brown v. Board of Education ordering desegregation] ‘with all deliberate speed,’” Mason said after the program. “So these discussions are important to fuel our minds. It was most productive in keeping people engaged.”

 “This really reflects VCU’s and the division’s values that we are such a rich and complexly diverse community and that is our greatest strength,” Pathak said. “We come together in community and in dialogue to move ourselves forward. Dr. King had some incredible wisdom and he talked about it in the time that he lived, but that wisdom is transcendent and we want to talk about how to bring that wisdom into today’s situation.”

Pathak said the event offered people a chance to engage with each other in hard conversations.

“How can a movement like this ensure it has the energy to keep going?” Wilson asked the crowd toward the end of the program. “We heard about the ebb and flow, the lulls, then the heightened awareness. So how do we keep it sustained?” 

In addition to the event on Sunday, MLK Celebration Week included a day of service at Evergreen Cemetery and a candlelight vigil sponsored by the Theta Rho Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity on Monday, and a discussion on “Dispelling Myths: Hidden Figures” on Wednesday. For the complete schedule, go to https://mlkday.vcu.edu/.