MLK inspired independence, fight against oppression: panelists

Martin Luther King, Jr. was 26 when he entered history

Left to right: Josephine Muxlow, Pemberton Cyrus, Afua Cooper, Wanda Thomas Bernard. Photo: Kaanayo Nwachukwu

Seasoned black community mentors Monday used the annual commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday to call for a united stand against discrimination and injustice.

They used their reflection on how the American civil rights impacted their lives (both in the 1960s and the 21st century) to speak with Dalhousie students and youth panelists.

At least 180 people -- mostly students -- attended the two-hour long event, which was held in Dal's student union building.

King made the world a better place

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A cross section of people at the event. Photo: Kaanayo Nwachukwu

There was a solemn feeling in the air as Wanda Thomas Bernard, social worker, community activist and past director of the school of social works at Dal, teared up while recalling how if it weren't for the civil rights movement in the United States and Nova Scotia, she and her sister wouldn't have had a post-secondary education.

She said she went to a segregated school in a segregated black community in Glasgow, N.S., and that before the civil rights movement, black people lived a life of oppression.

She said being black in her day meant she was not expected to go to university at all.

"Our parents had to finish school at Grade Eight because that was as far as segregated schools went," Bernard says.

Things began to change with the help of Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NSAACP), an organisation that drew inspiration from the American civil rights movement, she says.

"So, the civil rights movement in the United States and here at home gave us hope, gave us a sense of expectation, gave us the idea that something is possible."

But for NSAACP, Bernard and her sister wouldn't have been the first people in her community to go to university.

"I remember how the whole community clapped, sang and danced in the church as it celebrated our graduation."

Taking in the culture of inclusiveness

Afua Cooper, the James Robinson Johnson Chair in Canadian Studies at Dal, said although she grew up in her native Jamaica not experiencing racism, King's message had an international impact that helped the island nation fight against class oppression.

She advises today's youth to take in the culture of inclusiveness and think of how to make the world a better place for all its inhabitants.

"Martin Luther King, Jr. was 26 when he entered history," she says.

Josephine Muxlow -- a practicing nurse and adjunct faculty member of Dalhousie school of nursing -- echoes Afua's sentiment when she said King's messages helped her native Trinidad and Tobago abolish its class distinction and inequality.

Pemberton Cyrus, associate dean at the Dalhousie industrial engineering department, came to Canada from Grenada. He recalled how inspiration from King's messages helped the tiny Caribbean island nation attain independence from Great Britain in 1974.

In the end, both the speakers and students agreed that although race relations in the world are much better today because of the American civil rights movement, more still needs to be done to eliminate racism and discrimination completely.

No need for hatred

Dalhousie University's Black Student Advising Centre organized the event.

"Martin Luther King showed us that human rights are paramount in every society," said Nigerian-born Oluronke Taiwo, advisor of the centre. "So, let's not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred."

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