As snow flurries swirled and sounds of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” poured from speakers outside Slayter Hall, Tewoflos Tewoldeberhan ’25 raised a megaphone to his mouth.
Ahead of him was a march to the Mitchell Center to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Behind him were hundreds of fellow Denison students, faculty, and staff following his lead to promote social justice and inclusivity. Some carried signs. Many echoed the words that Tewoldeberhan shouted as the march began.
“MLK — respect his day! MLK — respect his day!”
Until recently, Tewoldeberhan never could have imagined playing such a prominent role in Denison’s annual MLK Celebration, which commemorates the work of the late civil rights icon. The economics and international studies dual major only moved from Ethiopia to America three years ago. But in joining the same fraternity as King, who was an Alpha Phi Alpha member at Morehouse College, Tewoldeberhan has become a quick study of King’s mission and goals.
“Just thinking of how much he gave to us, people of color, is very inspiring,” said Tewoldeberhan, the fraternity’s president and treasurer. “This day reminds us of what he fought for, and it gives us the energy to continue his legacy.”
For more than two decades, Denison has celebrated MLK day in its own way. The university’s remembrance is held the second Monday following the start of the spring semester. This allows organizers to place special emphasis on the way King’s life and legacy is commemorated. Classes are canceled, enabling students to participate in a full slate of activities, including service projects, workshops, and the march.
“This isn’t a day people should be sitting back and relaxing, but a day when people should be on fire, aspiring to do something great and pushing people to get out of their comfort zone,” said Kwaku Akuffo ’23, president of Denison’s National Pan-Hellenic Council. “I always say that the only way we can learn something is to hear about each other’s experiences and stories.”
The march from Slayter to Mitchell was among the highlights of the two days of remembrance, which began Jan. 22, 2023, with a Sunday morning worship at Herrick Hall.
The service was held in the gospel tradition of Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King once preached. Rev. Tim Carpenter, coordinator of Christian Life and director of the gospel choir, was chosen to lead the service after accepting an invitation from campus chaplain Stephanie McLemore.
“I said to Stephanie, ‘I’m going to do it the way King would do it,’” Carpenter told the audience in Herrick Hall. “She said, ‘OK.’ So that means each one of you are now Baptists.”
Attendance for the various MLK Celebration events and march was robust. The Monday service projects in Slayter drew students who spent the morning making cards for nursing home residents, blankets for hospice patients, and hygiene kits for the homeless.
“Looking around and seeing how many people are taking part in these activities is encouraging,” said Diamond McClellan ’25, a minister of affairs for the Black Student Union.
The decision to lengthen the march — last year it went from Swasey Chapel to Slayter — and to conclude it at Mitchell was a huge hit. The event culminated in a brunch and an hourlong program that included an appearance from storyteller and poet Dr. Wilson Okello.
While tables were set for about 250 people, at least 100 additional students ate and watched the program from along the indoor track and balcony. Nicole Ausmer, associate vice president and dean of student life, who co-chaired the MLK Celebration, said the idea was to bring students together to “break bread” and exchange ideas.
Akuffo was among the students who addressed the audience in Mitchell. After the march from Slayter, he emphasized the importance of never allowing King’s movement to grow stagnant.
“This is my favorite quote from Dr. King,” Akuffo said: “‘If you can’t fly then run. If you can’t run then walk. If you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.’”