Martin Luther King Jr. famously said that “faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” Perhaps even more profoundly, King did just that as a civil rights leader in the 1960s. What followed, said Tony and Grammy award winner Renée Elise Goldsberry, was generations of artists who “get to play on a staircase that Dr. King didn’t even necessarily see.
“He took that first step and was slain there in order for us to have that privilege,” Goldsberry said.
The Hamilton star spoke to a full house at Blackman Auditorium on Tuesday, delivering the keynote address at Northeastern’s annual A Tribute to the Dream—the main event in a weeklong campus celebration of King’s life and legacy.
Goldsberry closed the event with a stirring rendition of the gospel song, “How I Got Over,” a song performed by Mahalia Jackson during the March on Washington just before King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Goldsberry’s remarks—given as part of a conversation with Carole Bell, assistant professor of communication studies—and her performance bookended the hourlong event that featured song, dance, video, and narrative tributes to King and his impact.
The actress acknowledged the importance—the necessity, even—of King and those leaders, artists, and visionaries before her who live on as lenses through which we all can better understand our shared experiences.
“We all experience something…then we’ll listen to Martin Luther King Jr., or we’ll listen to our favorite folk musician, because the way that same experience comes through them is very particular and they’ve found a way to help us express something that we all feel, that is necessary,” she said.
“My opinion is, wherever that comes from—if it’s from an actor in a movie, if it’s from your daughter, your grandmother, your enemy, wherever it is—if someone has the ability to put forth words or voice or an image that helps you express something, that helps you understand something, then we should receive it,” Goldsberry said.
Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun encouraged the hundreds of students, staff, and faculty gathered Tuesday to actively seek those alternate views, to embrace the diversity and inclusion that are the bedrock of Northeastern’s mission.
“Learning happens when we engage with difference, when we take ourselves out of our comfort zone and see the world in a new way,” he said. “Ours is a truly global community, comprised of people from every race, religion, country, and culture. We have a unique opportunity to learn from each other; let’s take advantage of it.”
Aoun highlighted several students doing just that—building bridges of inclusion and understanding within the Northeastern community and beyond.
Kenny Francis was one of those students. A Martin Luther King Jr. Fellow and current graduate student, Francis told the story of the myriad ways King’s leadership guided his own life growing up in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood during a moving video.
Francis reflected on his chosen path. “It was clear to me that I had to pick a side,” he said. “Was I going to pursue the streets and do as street people do, and try to make a name for myself that way? Or was I going to get off my block and see what else the world had to offer?”
The discipline learned through the study of martial arts, combined with inspiration from King’s tenaciousness empowered Francis to choose the latter—a decision he hopes will serve as encouragement for other young children who find themselves at a similar crossroads.
The event showcased a range of student talents. One group opened the event with choreography set to the Oscar-winning song, “Glory,” from the movie Selma. Corei Moxey, E’17, sang a version of the Paul McCartney song, “Blackbird,” accompanied by Shai Bar-Ziv, SSH, DMSB’19, on guitar. Nolan Tesis, SSH’17; Sarah Childs, S’17; and Fatuma Mohamed, SSH’20, were also recognized during Aoun’s remarks for their leadership in inclusion on campus.
“It is our charge to make Dr. King’s dream a reality,” Aoun said.
Quoting the civil rights leader, Aoun said, “’The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ Yes, justice will prevail, but it will not do so on its own. It will take the efforts of each one of us. It means choosing diversity over discrimination; it means choosing unity over division; it means choosing inclusion over isolation. I ask you to enact that vision and give life to Dr. King’s dream. Together we’ll make history as a community, and together we’ll make Northeastern a model for society.”