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MLK Committee announces lineup for university celebration

Lehigh’s MLK Committee has announced the programming lineup for the university’s celebration of the life and legacy of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King, which will include multiple Grammy Award-winning rapper Macklemore, Black Lives Matter co-founder Opal Tometi and activist Bree Newsome. The talks are free and open to the public.

The powerful lineup of speakers is a result of the MLK’s focus on social activism that will span this academic year and the next, according to co-chairs Tyrone Russell and Lloyd Steffen. 

“Our efforts are designed to bring attention to justice concerns that are appropriate to this moment,” said Steffen, university chaplain and professor of religion studies. “The committee believes that with the guests who will be coming to campus, we will have a unique opportunity to listen and learn from people who have offered creative responses to problems a former generation once hoped would be gone by now but clearly are alive and well in American society—problems like racism, poverty and violence.”

Russell, who serves as director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs, said the committee remains steadfast in providing programming that is both locally and nationally relevant, while still being intellectually engaging.

“Our goal is to expand the conversation of justice beyond our traditional platforms and truly engage all people regardless of race, class, or generation,” he said. “We think this line-up will do that.”

Music as a force for social change

Seattle-based Hip Hop duo, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis recently released “Downtown,” the first single from their follow up to ‘The Heist,’ their multiple GRAMMY Award winning, platinum selling debut album. “Downtown,” which features Eric Nally and Hip Hop pioneers Grandmaster Caz, Kool Moe Dee and Melle Mel, has been performed on the VMA’s and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and the video has been viewed nearly 78 million times on YouTube.

Last month, on the American Music Awards, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis and soul singer Leon Bridges performed, “Kevin," a riveting new song that tackles the prescription drug epidemic in America.

The duo is hard at work on their follow up release, and will be visiting Lehigh University in the midst of a U.S. Tour.

Macklemore has always used music as a vehicle to tackle social issues, including drug addiction, white privilege and homophobia. For his support of marriage equality and human rights, Macklemore was honored with the ACLU of Washington's Civil Libertarian Award in October of 2014. He has been outspoken about his struggles with addiction, and is a strong advocate for treatment and recovery programs, especially for young people. Macklemore has taken up environmental causes as well, serving as a spokesperson in the campaign to clean up Seattle's Duwamish River. The river is one of the most toxic waste sites in the nation and disproportionately impacts low-income people of color in South Seattle.

He summed up his personal philosophy in a 2012 documentary when he said, "I want to be someone who is respected and not just in terms of my music. I want to be respected in terms of the way that I treat people... Music is my creative outlet in terms of expressing what is important to me; what has importance, what has a value.”

During his visit to Lehigh on Sunday, Jan. 24, Macklemore will join in a discussion with Black Lives Matter co-founder Opal Tometi, on activism in the 21st Century. The conversation will be moderated by Prof. James Peterson, who previously interviewed Macklemore for his podcast, The Remix.

"Macklemore and Ryan Lewis are effortlessly self-reflexive and deeply committed to learning more about the particular subject positions they inhabit as successful pop stars who set out to make good Hip Hop music,” Peterson said.  “They also happen to be white – an existential fact that is almost as much plague as it is privilege in the world of authenticity games in Hip Hop culture."

A call to action

A dedicated activist working at the intersection of racial justice and immigrant rights for more than a decade, Opal Tometi was incensed by the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin and was inspired to take action. Starting the Twitter hashtag, #BlackLivesMatter, Tometi (with Alicia Garza and Patrisse Cullors), prompted activism nationwide and introduced the banner under which this generation’s civil rights movement marches.

An established immigration rights advocate and community organizer, Tometi’s passionate interest stems from experience as the child of Nigerian immigrants. Recognized as a rising leader in the movement, she was named a “New Civil Rights Leader” by the Los Angeles Times for her work bridging immigrant and human rights initiatives to the ever-growing black liberation movement. In November 2014, Tometi was one of only six individuals to be named a "New Civil Rights Leader" by Essence Magazine for her cutting edge movement building work.

As the Executive Director at the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, Tometi is at the helm of the country’s leading black organization for immigrant rights, steering initiatives including the first Congressional briefing on black immigrants. She has also presented at the United Nations and has participated with the UN’s Global Forum on Migration and Commission on the Status of Women.

With personal perspective as a first generation American and an experienced community organizer, Tometi reveals raw insights into the adversity inflicted by social injustice, anti-black bias and uninformed views on immigration, educating and inspiring audiences to organize and stand together to transform society into a world where the lives and contributions of all individuals are recognized equally.

An act of defiance

Later that week, activist and filmmaker Bree Newsome will come to Lehigh for a talk that will be moderated by students and faculty. Although she is perhaps best known for climbing the South Carolina Statehouse flagpole to remove the Confederate flag in the wake of the shooting of nine church members at the state’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, Newsome has long been engaged on social and political issues. Her June 28, 2015 act of defiance involving the Confederate flag led to her arrest for defacing a monument on state grounds. In 2013, she was arrested at a sit-in at the office of then North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis for protesting the state’s restrictive voter ID law.

A graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Newsome earned her BFA in film and television. While still in high school, Newsome created an animated short, The Three Princes of Idea, which earned her a $40,000 scholarship from the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. At NYU, she wrote and directed a humorous public service announcement titled “Your Ballot, Your Voice,” to encourage youth voter turnout. The PSA went on to win Grand Prize in a PSA competition sponsored by Tisch and MTV. Newsome's short film, the award-winning Wake, recently made its national television debut on the ASPIREtv network.

Prior to her talk at Lehigh, Newsome’s film Wake, will be screened. A talk moderated by Darius Omar Williams, assistant professor of theatre and Africana studies, will follow the screening.

The MLK Celebration at Lehigh will kick off with the Lehigh Valley Multicultural Student Leadership Conference that will be held from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 16, in Iacocca Hall. The event is organized through Lehigh’s Office of Multicultural Affairs, in conjunction with local school principals Ferdinand Surita of Trexler Middle School and Harrison Bailey III of Liberty High School.

The conference is geared toward high school students engaged in and looking to enhance their leadership capabilities. Complete with a college and career fair, this event feature several workshops and seminars where students are engaged in the leadership development process. 

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Activist and filmmaker Bree Newsome

Activist and filmmaker Bree Newsome

Activist Opal Tometi

Activist Opal Tometi

MLK Week Events
  • Jan. 16: Lehigh Valley Multicultural Student Leadership Conference, Iacocca Hall, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
  • Jan. 24: Activism: A Conversation Between Opal and Macklemore. Baker Hall 1 to 2:30 p.m.
  • Jan. 27: "WAKE" Brown Bag and Talk Back University Center 303, Noon
  • Jan. 28: Bree Newsome, Activism and Her Climb for Justice: Baker Hall 7 p.m.