Campus group celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. Day

By John Manganaro

The frigid January wind did its best to put out the 50 or so candles carried by members of the… The frigid January wind did its best to put out the 50 or so candles carried by members of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity and others last night as they marched down Forbes Avenue sidewalks still patched with snow.

Gusts whipped along the largely deserted streets drowning out the marchers’ singing, but for all mother nature’s efforts, the small points of light remained. Fraternity members hoped the flames — shielded by gloved hands and hunched shoulders — might be a fitting remembrance for Martin Luther King Jr., a man who refused to allow the momentum of the civil rights movement to be put out in his own time.

The historically black fraternity dedicated to service and brotherhood sought to carry King’s memory, and after a short march, continued to discuss the issues facing today’s black community. The vigil and discussion formed a part of several events on Pitt’s campus this week to commemorate King’s legacy.

The group gathered first on the snow-capped steps of the Cathedral of Learning, mostly dressed in smooth, silk ties and starched collared shirts or other formal wear — whites and blacks, men and women. Alpha Phi Alpha president Isaac Connor thanked the small but diverse crowd for braving the cold.

“We’re here today to remember the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.,” Connor began, lighting the first candle and passing the flame from wick to wick. “I know everyone’s cold, but we have an important duty in remembering and honoring him.”

After a brief moment of silence and some autobiographical remarks, Connor and the Alpha Phi Alpha brothers led the procession west along Forbes Avenue. As some marchers’ candles went out, others quickly leaned in to rekindle them, passing the flame back and forth so that the original light still remained when the group reached David Lawrence Hall.

Once inside the building, Alpha Phi Alpha member Kene Ukeje moderated a group debate and discussion on the ideology and teachings of King and other black cultural leaders, particularly those of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois.

The conversation focused on two of the principle troubles still facing the black community in America today: a lack of health care and business ownership.

Ukeje cited statistics that seemed to surprise many of those in attendance. For instance, he reported that black people constitute almost 40 percent of new AIDS cases reported annually in the U.S., while representing just 13 percent of the country’s population.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports similar statistics on its website. At the end of 2007, black people accounted for 46 percent of people living with a diagnosis of HIV infection in the 37 states with “long-term, confidential, name-based HIV reporting.”

Ukeje opened the floor for discussion about this topic and others, including the under-representation of black Americans in small and large business ownership. Alpha Phi Alpha brothers and others proposed numerous explanations and potential solutions to these disparities.

“Too many of our people live in poor, densely populated urban communities with no access to health care and no sexual education. It’s not really surprising to hear these facts.

“It’s ’cause we don’t vote. We don’t get our voice out there, and we don’t get the help we need.

“Even when our brothers and sisters graduate from medical school,” he said, “they can’t help out our poor communities because they have to pay off their student loans. They can’t work for free.”

Gradually it became clear in the conversation that, like King and other big players in the civil rights movement, many in the black community at Pitt see teamwork and communication as paramount in solving the racial issues that still cause suffering and hardship, even in a nation with a black president.

In closing, Connor called for those in the audience to display the same courage King once did.

“As a people I think we are afraid of failure. Our community is full of great ideas and great minds, but too many of us take the easy way out, saying we don’t have the resources,” he said. “We can’t solve our problems if we don’t put ourselves out there and try.”