When the men of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc. decided to coordinate a Martin Luther King Jr. celebration at Clemson University in 1982, they hoped joining the movement to have Dr. King’s birthday designated as a national holiday would become more than just a commemorative social statement.

“Equality and justice were not the only parts of Dr. King’s vision — he also sought to bring about inclusion,” said Kenneth Robinson, a founding member of Clemson’s chapter of the fraternity in 1982 and current sociology professor at Clemson. The less-than-10 members of the Alpha interest group wanted to make an inclusive space for African-American young men and women coming to Clemson after them.

Brian Johnson, President of Tuskegee University, will speak at Clemson University's MLK celebration week.

Brian Johnson

Clemson continues to provide the annual opportunity for students to become part of a larger narrative of inclusion and community. Now, the celebration is organized by the MLK Enhancement Committee comprising representatives from across campus and funded by the President’s Office, Chief Diversity Office and Student Affairs. Forums, lectures and events such as the civil rights trip to Tuskegee University Jan. 16-18 and the Tunnel of Oppression on Jan. 22 are offered. The varied schedule of events seeks to promote justice, both in thought and action, under the umbrella of this year’s theme, “The Audacity of Justice.” Students are encouraged to be vulnerable and bring their voices together, safely.

Brian Johnson, seventh president of Tuskegee University, will give the keynote speech of the 2015 celebration during the Jan. 20 Commemorative Service. Rising from inner-city Durham, North Carolina, to university leadership over his lifetime, Johnson’s vast experience and intellect will be sure to challenge students to think critically.

Jaquanas Grant, current president of Alpha Phi Alpha, shares those hopes of the earlier Alphas.

“It’s always about serving the community and having a purpose,” explained Grant, who continues to keep the MLK celebration on his fraternity’s agenda. He recognizes that the goals of the week have changed over time to an expanded focus on the equality of all people, not just Dr. King’s commemoration.

“MLK week has transitioned into asking, ‘What does MLK’s dream look like in today’s world?’ and ‘How can we continue to live that dream?’” said Grant. To that effect, the Alpha representative on the MLK planning committee advocates for what Grant and other students see as the point of the week: to host a multi-ethnic, campus-wide celebration of inclusion and different perspectives.

Grant and his fellow organizers hope to challenge the entire Clemson Family to engage by asking questions such as, “How can we get over our obstacles together?”

Clemson professor Kenneth Robinson sits with Pi Alpha Chapter alumni attending the 30th Anniversary Reunion Celebration in March 2013.

Kenneth Robinson, fifth from left, sits with Pi Alpha Chapter alumni attending the 30th Anniversary Reunion Celebration in March 2013.
Image Credit: LaRon Stewart

“If people don’t feel included in the community, then there isn’t a community. You can call it one — even call it a family — but if someone is being shortchanged or neglected, it’s not,” Robinson said.

In the 80s, the small but growing black student population wanted to more fully participate in the University. This desire to have more of a campus family motivated the original Clemson Alpha members to reach out to Clemson’s faculty and the community for visibility and support.

By instituting the MLK celebration, he and the other Alphas hoped to make a welcoming environment on campus and bring awareness, not only of the life and deeds of a fellow Alpha, but of a man who opened doors for others to follow.

Through the dedication of the Alphas, Dr. King has continued to be remembered. The first MLK Jr. celebration speaker— the Rev. Dr. J.O. Rich – an Alpha himself, came from Anderson. Speeches from men such as Sen. Frank Gilbert and the Honorable Andrew Young, former mayor of Atlanta, carried the tradition forward. Even when the financial support seemed tight or attendance low, the members of Alpha believed in the celebration.

Funding over the years has fluctuated, but Grant believes that revived efforts to publicize the celebration and cross-campus collaboration will bring in people just the same. Grant remarks that world events and campus climate can have a huge effect on the success of the week. He sees a special value in the tradition because it shows Clemson’s willingness to be better each year for new generations of students.

“It offers a starting point from which individuals can leap outside their comfort zone,” Grant said.

Though organizers believe in the importance of the specific event, they know that this one week represents a vision that needs to be celebrated all year long. They hope to equip students to find ways to continually serve the entire community.

Robinson’s belief in the Clemson student body’s ability to rise to the occasion led to his return as a faculty member several years ago. He wants to be available to students and share his interest in social change and communities.

“Equality of all people — that’s the important thing. We’re all people, we’re all living together in this world, and we need to feel comfortable together,” Grant said.

To join in Clemson’s MLK Celebration Week, or to see a full list of events, check out clemson.edu/mlk.