RIT Expressions of King’s Legacy 35th anniversary celebration recap

Program speakers and performers relate historical connections

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A. Sue Weisler

U.S. Circuit Judge Robert L. Wilkins, who serves on the U.S. Court of Appeals, D.C. Circuit, and author of the book Long Road to Hard Truth: The 100-year mission to create the National Museum of African American History and Culture. He shared his journey to help establish what has become the 19th and newest museum of the Smithsonian Institution during the 2017 Expressions of King’s Legacy event on Jan. 26 at RIT.

This year’s guest speakers and performers at the RIT Expressions of King’s Legacy celebration had historical connections, not only to Dr. King, but to each other.

The 2017 event, now in its 35th year, featured the Fisk Jubilee Singers, District of Columbia Circuit Court Judge Robert Wilkins and CNN anchor Fredricka Whitfield. In the course of each of their presentations or performances, they’d share ties that bound them, wrapped in the influence of Dr. King.

Wilkins talked poignantly about the 100-year journey to establish the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and his role as chairman of the memorial’s site committee, in that effort. The nearly 1,000 community and campus members heard him speak of the men and women who took the idea of a memorial in 1915 to its fruition when it was dedicated in September 2016.

In 1915, there would be a grand review, a parade and celebration, to recognize the U.S. Army and the anniversary of the ending of the Civil War. Although black veterans who served in that war were allowed to attend, they were segregated, Wilkins explained.

“It was as if they were on citizenship probation after the Civil War,” said Wilkins, whose son, Bakari, is a first-year human-centered computing student at RIT. But that also became the germ of an idea for a memorial, a way to recognize that people, now emancipated from slavery, would contribute fully to the United States, including serving in the military.

One of those military heroes is Mal Whitfield, the father of keynote speaker Fredricka Whitfield. As she shared her career story, she talked about her family’s influence and highlighted some of her father’s accomplishments in both sports and the military. He won gold, silver and bronze medals in the Olympics and also was a member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen. Today, items such as his flight suit and a pair of running shoes he wore at the Olympics are part of the museum.

Throughout Wilkins’ presentation, he highlighted many of the individuals throughout the 100 years who advocated for the museum—Mary Bethune, James Baldwin, Jackie Robinson, Claudine Brown, Cornel West, Howard Dotson and John Lewis, to name only a few.

“They were people devoted to the mission of moving this forward,” he said.

Wilkin would serve on a committee with Hank Aaron, one of his boyhood heroes, and actress Cicely Tyson. The museum would house history and people who took pride in their heritage and contributions to America, and influence the next generation.

Photo gallery available here: https://people.rit.edu/aswcmp/Expressions_of_King's_Legacy_2017/

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