Candlelight Vigil honors, reinforces Dr. King’s legacy
Over sixty people gathered Sunday evening in the Rice Memorial Chapel for the annual Martin Luther King Vigil, put on by the Rice Black Male Leadership Initiative with the theme “Keeping the Dream Alive”.
Incoming Provost Reginald DesRoches served as the keynote speaker for an evening that included a performance of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by Sid Richardson College sophomore Toluwani Taiwo, a rendition of excerpts from one of King’s speeches by McMurtry College junior David King, and a closing prayer from Baker College junior Patrick Aghadiuno, all followed by a reception in the Multicultural Center.
Milkessa Gaga, the Director of Alumni Relations for BMLI, said that the club had taken on the responsibility for the annual vigil.
“[The vigil] wasn't always our responsibility as a club, but since it's fallen down to us, we always try to show out,” Gaga, a Martel sophomore, said. “It's something important to us, and we care about it. We want the event to go well, so we put effort into it.”
William Edmond, the Assistant Director of Multicultural Affairs, opened the night by asking audience members to reflect on what “Keeping the Dream Alive” meant for them.
For Josiah Jones, “Keeping the Dream Alive” means that there is more work to be done.
“What King wants us to do is continue to strive for a lot of the dream that he had [and] maintain that ideal,” Jones, a Lovett College sophomore, said. “It takes our generation of Rice students to be the change we want to see.”
President Leebron echoed this sentiment during his introduction of DesRoches, distinguishing Martin Luther King Day from other holidays as one that looks forward more than it looks backward.
“[MLK Day] challenges us to recognize what has been achieved but also what has not been achieved,” Leebron said before officially introducing DesRoches as the incoming Provost.
Leebron said DesRoches’ appointment as Rice’s first African-American Provost was a significant milestone for the university, but also sent an important message.
“I think what’s more important is what Reggie’s appointment emphatically demonstrates: namely, that diversity is an engine for greater excellence,” Leebron said.
After approaching the podium to a standing ovation, DesRoches began his speech by talking about his connection to King, who also grew up in Atlanta as an avid church member. DesRoches followed with notable historic firsts.
“Standing here today as the Dean of Engineering at Rice, and the incoming Provost, in the most diverse city in the United States, it’s hard to imagine that just fifty years ago, Rice had its first Black student graduate,” DesRoches said.
DesRoches recounted many ways in which conditions have either stayed the same or gotten worse, including incarceration rates for Black people, neighborhood segregation and widening wage gaps.
Continuing with a personal anecdote, DesRoches recounted an interaction with a female African-American senior Engineering student who was questioning whether she should pursue a PhD at Rice due to the lack of students who looked like her in her senior level classes, as they were predominantly male, White and Asian.
“I proceeded to tell her that yes, it will be like this in graduate school, and likely beyond graduate school,” DesRoches said of their conversation. “However, because there are so few people that look like you in graduate school, it is that much more critical that you consider getting a PhD. One day, there will be another Black or Brown student that decides that they can in fact do it just because they see somebody like you getting their PhD.”
DesRoches, whose parents moved from Haiti to the United States, said that he realized when he was growing up that while America was the land of opportunity, Black and Brown people were still treated differently than their White counterparts.
“For my family, MLK’s dream in some ways was realized,” DesRoches said. “However, until I don’t need to mention that I’m the first Black Dean, or Black Provost, or tell my two teenage boys, [or] that they shouldn’t wear a hoodie at night, or constantly remind them of what they need to do if stopped by a police officer, MLK’s dream will not have been fully realized.”
Mathias Adamu, the Vice President of BMLI, said he related to DesRoches’ life story and wanted to be like him when he grows up.
“He was born in Haiti, I was born in Ethiopia, he came here. He’s a mechanical engineer, he’s already doing great things,” Adamu, a Brown College junior, said. “He killed it as a dean. He came in, had his two-year stint as a dean, and now he’s a Provost.”
DesRoches concluded his speech by honoring the first three Black students to graduate from Rice and was received by another standing ovation from the audience.
“For many of you out there, there will be many firsts, and there will be a weight on your shoulders,” DesRoches said. “However, we must realize that this weight is indeed a feather compared to the weight that Raymond Jones [sic, should be Johnson], Ted Henderson, Linda Faye Williams, [in reference to the students he mentioned earlier in his speech] and many of those during that time carried, and the sacrifices that they made.”
Adamu, in particular, was touched by DesRoches’ final words of the night.
“Sometimes I, too, feel like I’m the first at a lot of things also,” Adamu said. “[It] can be scary, but it’s important again to trail blaze for somebody underneath.”
More from The Rice Thresher
Last month, a group of Black students published a list of demands for the administration to “address the systemic oppression and inequity that is embedded within Rice’s history by acknowledging and amplifying voices, experiences and communities that have historically been unheard.” One of the six demands is to remove Founder’s Memorial, the statue of William Marsh Rice found in the Academic Quad, on the basis of Rice’s enslavement of 15 people and involvement in the cotton trade. This demand received particular attention with “Down With Willy,” a student-led social media campaign to demand the administration remove the statue.
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