33rd Annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration

Angela Rye evokes flawed foundations at annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration

The 33rd annual event at the Carrier Dome featured Angela Rye, who spoke about the futility of pure intentions left unaccompanied by real action.

From Intention to Impact. That was the theme of this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration. From the musical student performances to the keynote speaker Angela Rye’s impassioned speech, this year’s event was not only a celebration, but a call to action.

“We’re at a time, in this day and age,” Rye said, addressing the media before the start of the event, “that we need more work and less talk.”

Arthur Harrison and Ed Beauford received two of 2017's Unsung Hero Awards for their work in the community.

The SU Black Reign Step Team kicked off Syracuse University’s 33rd annual MLK celebration with a performance honoring the Greensboro sit-ins of 1960. They were followed by the Young and Talented Hip Hop Performing Arts Kompany (YAT PAK), who danced to excerpts of Dr. King’s final speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.”

After a few introductory addresses, including Chancellor Kent Syverud and a musical performance by the Black Celestial Choral Ensemble, Senior Class Marshals Gerald Adivah Brown and Anjana Pati introduced Angela Rye, describing her as “unafraid and unapologetic.” Rye, a political commentator for CNN and NPR, among others, lived up to both of these labels.

With topics ranging from the NFL combine’s strange similarity to 19th century slave auctions to the prison industrial complex, Rye urged the crowd of just under 2,000 to distinguish between progress and success. Now, more than ever, Rye hopes that people use their power, which, according to Rye, Dr. King defined as “the ability to achieve purpose,” to move society forward. In order to do so, though, Rye argues we must first come to grips with our past.

“We must embrace the truth, so that we can repair the foundation,” said Rye, the daughter of an educator and an activist. “Until we fix the foundation, people will be oppressed.”

Rye went on to list the foundational flaws the United States has been built on, going as far back as Christopher Columbus’ arrival in North America, and as recent as Donald Trump’s “damn wall and his s-hole countries”

“Where do we go from here?” Rye asked, as she wrapped up her speech. “That’s a holistic question,” she explained, making it very difficult to give a definitive answer. So much progress must be made in so many areas, yet Rye understands that it can at times overwhelm even the most passionate activist, which is why we need faith and unity.

Joan Hillsman, a member of the celebration’s organizing committee since 2010, echoed this sentiment.

“All of our cultures need to come together for the good of humankind. That is what [Dr. King] would have wanted,” Hillsman said. “We must work on “The Dream” so that it does not become a nightmare.”

Hillsman also said that Rye was chosen, in part, because she was a “prominent believer of ‘The Dream.’”

In her speech, Rye recalled the story of a prominent 19th century abolitionist to drive home this point.

Harriet Tubman took 19 trips to save over 300 slaves, “keeping her eyes on the prize,” said Rye, who also serves as the CEO of IMPACT Strategies, a political advocacy and strategic consulting firm.

We must not let our struggles defeat us, she argued, but bring us closer together, and in turn, make us stronger. No individual can move the country forward alone, yet every individual can play a part in our progress.

“If we go exclusively by what we see, we can feel like things aren’t changing and get discouraged,” she said.  “The hell with your feelings,” she continued.

Andrea Autry, a first-time attendee, was inspired by Rye’s message.

“I have always known that I could do more,” Autry explained, “but she made it very clear. She did not hold anything back.”

After Rye’s speech came a few more dance and musical performances, followed by the presentation of the Unsung Hero Awards given out to members of the community, both within the university and beyond, who embody the values of Dr. King.

Chris Burns, a teacher who at night volunteers as a boxing coach at local gyms, and Robert Wilson, the director of Student Support Services here at SU, where he works with first-generation college students, were among the recipients of this year’s honor.

After closing remarks were made by Bridget Yule, the chair of the event’s organizing committee,

“Reach and Tough (Somebody’s Hand)” was played as the audience funneled out.

After an evening of celebrating the past, while also acknowledging the problems it has created, perhaps the most important message of the night was the Dr. King quote that Rye recited towards the end of her speech.

“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.”

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