‘Sing a song of hope’: W&L honors MLK with reflection on the past, focus on the future

Students and community members learned and celebrated through a week of programming


Emma Malinak

Students listen to each speaker’s unique reflections on King in Evans Hall.

Emma Malinak, Arts & Life Editor

Members of the Washington and Lee and Lexington communities found numerous ways to observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day throughout the week of Jan. 15.
The first notes of celebration were heard in Wilson Concert Hall on Jan. 15 as audience members, waiting for Ben Crump to take the stage as keynote speaker for the weeks’ events, sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
Often referred to as “The Black National Anthem,” the song was originally written as a poem by NAACP leader James Weldon Johnson in 1900.
The first verse includes these lyrics: “Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us. Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us. Facing the rising sun of our new day begun, let us march on ‘til victory is won.”
The themes here—learning from the past, appreciating the present, and planning for the future—guided the week’s programming.

Sing a song full of the faith
that the dark past has taught us

The Office of Inclusion and Engagement (OIE) hosted “Reflections on the Life and Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.” on Jan. 18 in Evans Hall to consider how moments in history have shaped the struggle for equality.
Tamara Futrell, dean for diversity, inclusion and student engagement, said the night’s nine speakers, including professors and students from Washington and Lee’s undergraduate and law schools, were brought together to address the most important historical lessons that can be learned from King.
Guests listened to the speakers’ perspectives while eating together, a feat Futrell said hasn’t occurred since January 2020.
Jimmie Johnson, assistant professor of physical education and a 2020 graduate of Washington and Lee, detailed how the sacrifices of past civil rights leaders allowed him to visit his grandparents in Selma, Alabama.
“For those before me, [Selma] was a place of immense pain and death for people who looked just like me,” Johnson said. “So Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches aren’t just speeches to me anymore. His actions are the very thing that allowed me to spend summers with my grandparents picking peaches from their tree in peace.”
Johnson, along with other speakers such as Kobie Crosley, Law Class of 2023, recounted the danger, violence and hate that civil rights leaders had to face in order to demand change.

A Black man in a suit jacket speaks at a podium.
Kobie Crosley, ’23L, gives a speech reflecting on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Photo by Emma Malinak, ’25

“Their courage and sacrifices are the reason I am your speaker today,” Johnson said. “And now we have a responsibility to be courageous people.”
Lynn Rainville, executive director of institutional history and museums, tracked the university’s relationship with the civil rights movement. She highlighted notable years like 1961, when the university denied King the right to speak on campus, and 1966, when the first Black students matriculated.
Peyton Tysinger, ’23, discussed Executive Committee efforts to guide debates about changing the university’s name.
She said King taught that it is important to not ignore history even when it is difficult to reconcile with, and to “collectively and peacefully work together for real change.”
“I think if Dr. King was among us today, he would be encouraged, perhaps cautiously optimistic, about our school community,” Tysinger said. “While changes have been modest, and progress often slow, we have led our conversations from a place of respect.”
Dr. Eric Moffa, assistant professor of education, took a unique approach to talking about history by discussing how the history of the Civil Rights Movement is currently taught in Virginia’s elementary, middle and high schools.
After analyzing state education standards, Moffa said he found that students are learning about only the most agreeable aspects of King’s life, such as the fact that he was a nonviolent activist.
“I’m concerned that students are receiving an oversimplified depiction of King,” Moffa said. “It’s doing little to prepare students to pick up the torch to further King’s calls for racial justice in our democracy.”
On Jan. 16, the Students for Historical Preservation invited Tom Camden, head of special collections and archives, to lead another history-focused event. Students and faculty members learned about the civil rights movement by interacting with various artifacts and letters from the 1960s.

Sing a song full of the hope
that the present has brought us

Other events of the week focused on the importance of finding peace in the present, whether via careful reflection or carefree celebration.
The Student Alliance for Black Unity held its annual three-on-three basketball tournament on Jan. 15, inviting the university community to come together for some friendly competition. The following day, CARE Rockbridge held its seventh-annual MLK community parade, giving students, faculty members and local residents the opportunity to unite on the streets of Lexington.
Later on Jan. 16, the Tea Society hosted ceremonies in the Senshin’an Tea Room, giving people time for quiet reflection.

Two women hold a tea tray. Behind them, a man uses a bamboo dipper to clean.
The W&L Tea Society hosts a ceremony focused on reflection. Photo by Emma Malinak, ’25

Janet Ikeda, associate professor of Japanese and faculty leader of the Tea Society, said she created the MLK Day tea ceremony in 2017 to give students a chance to contemplate the meaning of the holiday.
“Tea is all about reflection,” Ikeda said. “Here, we’re looking within.”
In a traditional Japanese tea ceremony, the host decides the theme of the gathering and selects the tea utensils and scroll that will best establish the mood. The theme of this celebration was “dream,” and the leaders of the ceremony, including Henry Barden, ‘23, encouraged their guests to think about the significance of that word in relation to King’s legacy.
“In a world where we’re always hustling and bustling, tea makes you slow down and think about one thing and one thing only,” Barden said, explaining why he enjoys the ceremony as a time to think about King’s dream.
An event titled “Building Resilience through Healing” encouraged students to feel grounded in the present. Staff members from University Counseling hosted the program in Northen Auditorium on Jan. 17.
Rallie Snowden, licensed clinical social worker, led a mindfulness activity designed to help people address their trauma. She invited audience members to focus on an image that represents their trauma and notice how their bodies and minds responded. Then, Snowden asked audience members to think of a person, animal or place that makes them feel safe and take deep breaths as they experience that sense of security. Snowden said this exercise is an effective way to heal from the past and remain resilient in the present.
The final events of the week were a Shabbat dinner hosted by Hillel on Jan. 20 and the African Society’s fashion show and dance held on Jan. 21, both focused on the joy that can be found when community members come together to celebrate a common cause.

Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
let us march on ‘til victory is won

Some events of the week emphasized the future for racial justice in America.
OIE hosted a birthday party event for children on Jan. 16 to include the next generation of change-makers. Every table in the balloon-filled Evans Hall had a picture of King, which Futrell hoped would spark conversations between children and their parents.
“It’s a fun event, but it’s also educational in the process,” Futrell said.
Futrell estimated that about 200 kids attended the event. Each of them learned the importance of helping others, which Futrell said was one of King’s most important messages, as they helped to make dog treats to donate to the Rockbridge branch of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Many students said the most inspirational event of the week was the keynote speech by Ben Crump on Jan. 15. Crump, a renowned civil rights attorney, discussed the racial inequities that have persisted, and how young adults can address and solve those problems.
Crump said that the most important lesson that can be learned from King’s life is that everyone has a moral responsibility to oppose evil when they see it. He argued that everyone has a role to play in identifying injustices and correcting them.
“We must not allow the enemies of equality to win,” Crump said. “It is the right thing to do to stand up for our children’s future in America.”
Crump identified the school-to-prison pipeline, voter suppression, and environmental, medical and legal racism as the biggest challenges that need to be addressed.
Although he admitted that those tasks seem daunting, Crump shared hope for the future through a piece of wisdom that his grandmother taught him.
“It’s better to strike a match than to curse at the darkness,” Crump said.