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SLU, community pay homage to linked legacies of Lincoln, King and Obama

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CANTON — While in Washington hundreds of thousands listened intently as President Barack H. Obama touched on the work of Martin Luther King Jr. in his inaugural address to set the tone for a second term, in Canton, another president used the Rev. Dr. King’s legacy to set the tone for the spring semester.

St. Lawrence University President William M. Fox addressed a song service at the Gunnison Chapel in observance of the civil rights leader.

“We are perhaps between disappointment and hope in measuring our history of the last 150 years,” he said. “For my own place in that dichotomy, I have come to believe that the American dream is also the American dilemma. As Lincoln wrote and as King knew, there is no moral peace until there is moral justice. Laws can express justice, but only hearts can do what is right.”

Other speakers touched on the Rev. Dr. King’s message of love in a world of fear, pacifism in an era of violence and tolerance amidst bigotry by using his own words.

“Dr. King said, ‘Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence, but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him,’” said Claire Washer, a St. Lawrence University senior.

Several vocal groups from the university and the Community Gospel Choir also performed at the service. Selections ranged from traditional spirituals to a capella versions of songs by Coldplay, Grace Potter and Stevie Wonder.

“Music was a character of the movement, it empowered and emboldened them,” said Shaun Whitehead, St. Lawrence’s associate chaplain. “Songs were used to conquer hate, fear and violence.”

The work of Rev. King found its genesis 150 years ago in President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, said Mr. Fox.

“When you see the iconic images of Dr. King speaking from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, the centennial year of the Emancipation Proclamation, you should not miss that the declaration of a dream rests upon the governing prose of a proclamation,” he said. “Before there was a national holiday honoring the life of Martin Luther King, there was for about a hundred years in many African-American communities a celebration on New Year’s Day of the Emancipation Proclamation.”

A century and a half later, Americans are still called to continue the work of emancipation, said Mr. Fox.

“The Emancipation Proclamation was not by any means a declaration of victory or the codification of better law,” he said. “It was only the forerunner of reform; it was decidedly not a change in legal rights and protection.”

That reform became a cross for civil rights pioneers to bear.

As the muted last light of the day faded through the chapel’s stained glass windows, Valerie Lehr, vice president and dean of academic affairs traced the legacy of the Emancipation Proclamation and Rev. King to Mr. Obama’s second inauguration.

“The election of Barack Obama as president of the United States can be seen as a direct result of Dr. King’s work,” she said.

Mr. Fox urged his students to free themselves from ignorance, incivility and fear of their differences.

“For our own small part in converting proclamation into fact, learn something new, note something beautiful, and do something brave,” he said. “We enjoy wondrous freedom in this new day. And yet, we are never entirely emancipated so long as we require strength to face an old dilemma… and to embrace an abiding dream.”

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