The City of Corvallis hosted a simple and moving celebration of the life and ideals of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. Thursday night at the Majestic Theatre.
The MLK Jr. Commission hosted the event, and city Councilor Jeanne Raymond, began the evening by reading Section 4 of the City Charter which ensures the equal protection, treatment and representation of all persons without discrimination.
“Corvallis is a community that honors diversity and diverse interests, and aspires to be free of prejudice, bigotry, and hate,” Raymond read from the document.
Next, Wil Gamble led a brief induction ceremony for new officers of the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chapter, which has been active for 38 years.
About 30 members of the Corvallis High School Concert Choir directed by Aubrey Peterson volunteered their voices to the singing of “MLK” and “The Storm is Passing Over” and City Council President Mark O’Brien announced the winner of the commission’s essay contest on the theme of institutional racism.
Morgan Engle was presented with a scholarship of $1,000 for her essay, which contrasted her early childhood in Birmingham, Ala., with her experiences in the Corvallis community.
Keynote speaker Shelley Moon moved some in the audience to tears, while others said “right on!” as she explored issues of race with dramatic readings and speeches.
“Racism hurts everyone,” she said. “What happens to the least of us happens to all of us. This is a rare and wonderful opportunity to allow love to transform it all ... by consciously choosing to open our hearts.”
She said that people who’ve experienced racism can facilitate an awareness for others who say they are “colorblind” or believe that in a time when an African American is president, racism is over.
She began her performance by acting out a true story about the mistreatment of her great-great-grandmother by her slave mistress. The cruelty in the story was horrific, but Moon said that her ancestor never once took on a victim mentality.
“And there is healing in the telling of the old stories and in the creation of the new stories of hope, peace and freedom. Until eventually, there is no story at all, just the celebration of the oneness that we all are,” she said. “It’s always better on the other side of the story.”
Moon is a poet, playwright and activist for social change. She also spoke about her experience as an artist in residence in local schools.
“When I ask them if racism is over, not a single one says ‘yes,’” Moon said of her interactions with students. They tell her they see it every day and other insidious forms of discrimination as well, such as the mistreatment of homosexual and disabled students.
“Being colorblind doesn’t end racism,” she said. “I’m not saying these conversations are easy to have. I’ve taken lots, and lots, and lots of deep breaths.”
She quoted a section from a 1960s speech given by King: “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”
“I invite you to enter into the conversation,” she said. “Let us take a collective breath and honor the love that brought us here tonight.”
“We can lean into Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream.”
At the end of Moon’s remarks, she invited Corvallis High School freshman Maya Van Londen on to the stage to sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the song considered by many as the African American national anthem.
The audience rose to its feet and many joined Van Londen in song.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day will be observed on Monday, Jan. 17, two days after the 82nd anniversary of his birth and almost 43 years after his assassination in Memphis, Tenn.