“The Fierce Urgency of Now” celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. while recognizing the need to continue his work

Americans must overcome an “empathy deficit” if racial justice is to be achieved, said Pastor Alan Yawn at a special program to honor Martin Luther King Jr. held at Lees-McRae on Jan. 20.  

This year’s commemoration program for Martin Luther King Jr. Day was titled “The Fierce Urgency of Now: An Experiential Evening to Remember the Life of Martin Luther King Jr.” The program’s name came from a speech King delivered in 1967 at Riverside Church in New York City called “Beyond Vietnam—A Time to Break Silence.” In addition to the keynote address offered by Yawn, the evening featured a musical number, poetry readings, and a recitation of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.  

Lees-McRae Chaplain Ted Henry opened the program with a prayer offered by King in 1953. President Lee King then shared a few welcoming remarks, saying, “I’m grateful that Lees-McRae is an institution that value’s King’s continued influence on our society.” 

President King also quoted Martin Luther King Jr., echoing the civil rights leader’s push for love as a solution to many of society’s problems: “Love is not an emotional bash. It is not empty sentimentalism. It is the act of outpouring one’s whole being into the being of another.” 

The master of ceremonies for the event was Charles E. Gibson III, the college’s inaugural chief diversity officer. His life, he explained, paralleled King’s in several ways. Gibson was raised a mile away from where King was born in Atlanta, Georgia, and he took his first college-level courses at King’s alma mater, Morehouse College. For the program, Gibson wore a cardigan representing Alpha Phi Alpha, the first intercollegiate fraternity established by African Americans, which King himself joined in 1952.  

Yawn, the keynote speaker for the night, is lead pastor at Banner Elk Christian Fellowship. Like Gibson, Yawn drew similarities between himself and King, noting that he and King share a profession, before opening his address by recounting the Biblical story of Joshua and the walls of Jericho. In the Old Testament, the Israelite army was only able to destroy the impregnable walls surrounding the city of Jericho by “speaking with one voice.” 

“There are many lessons to take from that passage, just as there are many lessons to take from the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King,” Yawn said. Before the historic events of the Civil Rights Movement, Yawn continued, “there was Dr. King, the young preacher, and the people who found themselves suffering under the yoke of oppression.”  

Like at the battle of Jericho, King and his contemporaries had to come together in unity to affect change.  

“What Dr. King knew is that if just one person chose to walk instead of riding the bus, those walls of oppression would not be moved,” Yawn said. “But maybe if a few more were willing to walk, the foundation might start to shake. If enough Americans were awakened to injustice and they joined together—north and south, rich and poor, Christians and non-Christians—perhaps that wall would come tumbling down and justice would flow like water.”  

Yawn explained that if modern Americans were to come together in the same way, individuals would need to be able to recognize themselves in other people and feel empathy for each other. He pointed out that there are many divisive forces in society, and the African American community has especially been treated poorly throughout history. To make the country more equitable and to heal those divides would require a strong joint effort.  

“Dr. King understood that unity could not be won on the cheap. We would have to earn it through great effort and determination. But that hard-earned unity is what we need right now,” Yawn said. He concluded his remarks by saying that the walls of injustice could only come down, “if we pray together, if we work together, and if we march together.”  

The commemoration program also featured a performance by Lees-McRae vocal ensemble The Highlanders and two poetry readings by members of the Creative Writing Club. Audrey Nidiffer, club secretary, read “The Struggle Staggers Us” by Margaret Walker, and club president Sam Cunningham read “Making Peace” by Denise Levertov.  

The final performance of the night was a recitation of the famous 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech King gave during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom by Student Government Association President London England. Gibson accompanied him on the piano during the recitation.  

In his closing remarks, Gibson shared that his own ancestors had once been held in bondage in nearby Lenoir.  

“I doubt my ancestors, enslaved in the foothills of these mountains, could’ve ever imagined one of their descendants would become part of a proud multi-ethnic family and rise to the summit of those same mountains to join an academic community that unapologetically embraces the freedom of the human mind, body, and spirit,” Gibson said.  

“Our community and nation have come a long way,” he continued, “but we still have work to do. Let’s run on until we realize Martin’s dream.” 

Henry closed the program with a benediction by Rabbi Andrea Goldstein of Congregation Shaare Emeth in St. Louis, Missouri.  

By Emily WebbJanuary 21, 2022
Campus Life