From Jan. 18 to Jan. 20, Willamette saw its 2023 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration. This year’s theme was “Just Living: Celebrating the African Diaspora.” The focus, however, ranged from everyday life improvements in marginalized communities to the task of continuing the legacy of the civil rights icon.
On Jan. 18, the celebration began at Willamette’s PNCA campus. As the Celebration Committee learned, a great deal of continuing the Reverend Doctor’s legacy resided in community building. It was important for the Committee then that this celebration build a united community between the Portland and Salem campuses. The need for this community building took on increased importance in a world that is only now beginning to earn the adjective “post-COVID.”
Oregon criminal justice activist and artist Sterling Cunio opened the PNCA event with a performance piece on food scarcity. Celebrity chef Bryant Terry followed with a cooking demonstration and a discussion about the food scarcity facing countless people even in the wealthiest country in the world, particularly the African diaspora in America.
Booking Bryant Terry was no small feat. His 2021 book “Black Food: Stories, Recipes, and Art from Across the African Diaspora” was the most critically acclaimed cookbook of 2021. In fact, his story sits right at the center of success in the Diaspora. His uncle Don Bryant penned songs for Al Green, established a musical career so successful that he was nominated for a Grammy, and co-wrote the famous song “I Can’t Stand the Rain.”
At Willamette’s Salem campus, Terry came for a conversation with the MLK Book Club at Cone Chapel on Jan. 19 and a cooking demonstration on the same day.
The centerpiece of this year’s MLK Jr. Celebration, however, was the Into the Streets program on Jan. 20. In this program, Community Service Learning student leaders and Assistant Dean of Civic Engagement Tommy van Cleave led community service projects across various sites including Zena Farms and Isaac’s Garden. Reverend Ineda Pearl Adesanya—Chair of the MLK Celebration Committee—said that she was especially proud of the community service accomplished here. She mentioned specifically that she was very proud of the reconstruction of an old defunct garden at Windsor Rehab Center.
Adesanya also said that she was proud of how deeply the Into the Streets program reflected community outreach. At an often insular school like Willamette, the program offered a chance to connect students to the surrounding city of Salem. Not only that, but the program also connected the various elements of the Willamette campus, bringing in volunteers from all across the student body, including from the law school. “I think what I was most pleased with,” Adesanya said, “and what I’d like to see the university continue to do, is embrace as much of our community in the activity as possible.” She hopes that this community building will be a defining aspect of future MLK Jr. celebrations.
Branching out from Willamette to the Salem community, the university awarded the MLK Courage Award to local Chef Jonathan Jones, owner and founder of Epilogue Kitchen. Jones works to promote a positive work culture and inclusive environment in Salem, from creating sustainable employment to including Braille books in Epilogue’s library.
The final event of this year’s celebration was on Jan. 20. An Atkinson Lecture Series event partially funded by the Lear Lecture Endowment Fund, this part of the celebration was a presentation from Bryant Terry about food justice, growing up in the Diaspora and continuing the legacy of Reverend Doctor King.
In the presentation, Terry said that so much of his education came from his grandpa’s garden and his grandma’s kitchen. Childhood experiences in these places taught him what goes into food and developed his passion for it. This passion might have been ignited by one experience in particular—when he’d know that his grandma was cooking by her singing drifting out of the kitchen window and into the yard.
This passion for food continued into Terry’s teenage years. It found new footing when he listened to the song “Beef” by MC Masters, which details all the horrors of the meat industry. The song led Terry to veganism, at the time transforming him into what he described as “the most self-important, finger-wagging vegan.” His dad insisted this change in Terry’s life had some intellectual depth. He would buy Terry the MC Masters album on one condition—that Terry read “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair and write a one page paper on it. Suffice to say, Terry’s life became intertwined with food.
Terry found himself continuing the legacy of Reverend Doctor King when he founded his organization called Be Healthy. In the work with Be Healthy, he found himself engaging with the effects of poverty in America. Working class people—disproportionately belonging to the African Diaspora because of institutionalized oppression—were struggling with healthy living. Often times this was a matter of access to healthy ingredients, other times it was a lack of access to knowledge. The transference of cooking skills from generation to generation was severed by excessive hours for working parents who didn’t have time to teach their kids how to cook. Just as MLK Jr. spent his later years championing racial justice through a largely economic lens, Terry championed justice through the more specific lens of food.
Bryant Terry continues this work today. In much of the presentation, he described his book “Black Food: Stories, Recipes, and Art from the African Diaspora” which features countless examples of healthy living. In many ways, this work reflects the ambitions of MLK Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign. According to Reverend Adesanya, this is key in continuing MLK Jr.’s legacy. She said about aspects of the civil rights champion’s work, “I think we have to look beyond the popular, [the] I have a dream.”
Continuing the Reverend Doctor’s legacy for Terry was also simply about continuing the beauty of the Diaspora as a whole. Everything that he did continued the traditions of his loved ones. This was never more clear than in a clip of his original music he showed at the presentation. It offered a rare exchange across time. Terry’s mom played the part of his grandmother, singing gospel hymns as oil sizzled in the background, just like Terry heard as a child whenever his grandma was cooking. Then, after a moment of silence, Terry’s voice joined his grandmother’s in duet. Community and culture continued like it did across the Willamette campuses and surrounding communities in this year’s MLK Jr. Celebration.