Thaddeus Jackson and Greta Schrag are the lead roles in "Anne and Emmett," a play by Janet Langhorn Cohen. The production was the highlight of EMU's 2022 Martin Luther King Day Celebration. (Photo by Rachel Holderman)

‘Use your voice’: EMU honors MLK with day of learning, service

Take risks, be ready to put yourself on the line when the moment calls for it, be inclusive in your vision of “we the people,” and see the struggle against discrimination, racism and homophobia, against hatred of all kinds as your own. Those are some excerpts from the words of Glenn Guyton, executive director of Mennonite Church USA, speaking during Eastern Mennonite University’s 2022 Martin Luther King Jr Day Celebration of Service and Learning. 

The university celebrated King’s legacy with a “day on” rather than a “day off,” President Susan Schultz Huxman noted in her campus convocation greeting. With most in-person events also offered in hybrid form because of COVID-19 and a nasty winter storm, Monday’s schedule offered multiple opportunities to explore both the action and consequences of “lifting up” one’s voice.

The theme, which also addresses the tragic outcomes of silence in the face of discrimination and hatred, was drawn from King’s text Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story (1958) by MLK Day committee chair and Director of Multicultural Student Services Celeste Thomas and members of the planning committee: “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” 

The talkback with producers, cast and crew of “Anne and Emmett.” Bob Berrson, Jewish Scholar in Residence at EMU’s Center for Interfaith Engagement, is third from left. Director Ezrionna Prioleau speaks. (Photo by Rachel Holderman)

Listen to more of Guyton’s words here: at a Sunday community service (beginning at 36:00), led by Reverend Kimberly Young of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Harrisonburg, and again at Monday’s Celebration Convocation (beginning at 39:15).

Mayor Deanna Reed, who in her prominent local political office has been a very present champion during the city’s recent pandemic challenges, spoke at both events. She acknowledged the longevity of this current strain, how it has bared racial and social disparities, and the weariness with which we are persevering through yet another surge.

These are all reasons to be tired, to lack the energy to speak up, she said. But Proverbs 31 holds the admonition to speak up: Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.

“I believe the spirit of Dr. King’s movement guided many of us, especially in the last two years,” she said. “Dr. King gives us the blueprint we need – for us NOT to sit back and be silent.”

Reed was among the cast of actors telling the story of Emmett Till and Anne Frank, two teenagers both murdered by acts of hatred years apart, in Janet Langhorn Cohen’s play “Anne and Emmett.” Read more about “Anne and Emmett” in local news coverage.

Among those speaking at the convocation was Talibah Aquil, a graduate of and instructor with the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, who will lead an intercultural trip to Ghana this summer for students of color. She reminded listeners to remember Coretta Scott King and her suffering, and the hard work of those who surrounded King on his journey. Learn more about and support the Ghana intercultural trip.

Members of the EMU community were also invited to participate in a solidarity march, join reading circles to explore King’s texts, hear inspiring words from a former Black Student Union leader and current doctoral candidate, and learn about Virginia’s justice system was wielded against a local Black resident with history professor Mark Sawin, among other scheduled activities.