Forty years ago yesterday, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his prolific sermon, “Why I am Opposed to the War in Vietnam,” to an audience in New York’s Riverside Baptist Church. He criticized the continuing arrogance and hypocrisy of Washington while America suffered senseless brutality and tragedy brought on by the prolonged Vietnam War.
Commemorating King’s message, students, faculty and administration, as well as community members gathered in the Interfaith Chapel for a public reading of a condensed version of the speech and a peace vigil.
The evening opened with slides of various war scenes accompanied by a rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind” playing in the background. The images and videos of Vietnam and Iraq were interwoven with clips of King from the 1960s. The montage called upon the audience to reflect upon civil rights and King’s vision of a universal justice and peace. Following this prelude, Natalee Burke ’05 performed an operatic musical selection.
Associate Professor of Italian and advocate for the program Donatella Stocchi-Perucchio then gave the welcoming address, which detailed the reasons for the event.
“We could not think of many people who could give the speech, but we could think of many people who would subscribe to that message,” she said. “We are here to discuss what has not changed, why it has not changed and what we can do about it.”
Stocchi-Perucchio’s claim proved legitimate as the talk was well attended by faculty and students.
The public reading recognized the significance of King’s words and their pertinence to current events. King’s message proves to transcend not only race or faith, but also the decades.
“His speech on Vietnam discussed the evils of warfare,” reader, President of Black Student Union and senior Marquis Harrison said. “Many people believe this issue relates to Iraq, and they are concerned about the future. King challenges us today to live in harmony.”
Thirty-six of those attending the program were also readers, ranging from student leaders like Harrison to professors and community leaders.
The variety of presenters included former President of the Rochester NAACP and Member of the Board of Regents Walter Cooper, Rabbi Jennifer Gravitz of the Rochester Institute of Technology Hillel and Rochester City Councilman Adam McFadden.
The diversity of speakers emphasized how King’s message reaches different communities. Each took a turn to read from the sermon, creating a seamless flow. This tactic had a unique effect as each reader had a distinct reading style, representing how a diverse group can share a common belief.
“The event was great because you could see the integration, especially among the readers,” Harrison said. “It was a great showing of coming together. I only wished it happened more often.”
The speech was followed by a rousing performance of “Let it Rain” by the UR Gospel Choir and a set of songs by folk singers Bob Zentz and alumni Jeanne McDougall ’91.
The duo began with a Pete Seeger song, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” They concluded the ceremony with two sing-alongs that preached peace and love, singing “Give light, and people will find the way.” The final song accompanied the procession of audience members as they departed for the peace vigil.
The vigil, sponsored by Nonviolent on Campus, was held in the atrium of the Interfaith Chapel, where approximately 40 people showed their support for King’s message of peace. People stood in a circle holding candles, and each person took his or her turn to share thoughts on a multitude of topics detailing his or her reflections on civil justice, as well as hopes for future change.
Squires is a member of the class of 2010.