MLK day of service
Photos by Kathy F. Atkinson January 20, 2020
UD’s Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority turns out to honor the civil rights leader
When Jordyn Stevens awoke at 6:45 a.m. on Monday, Jan. 20 — Martin Luther King, Jr. Day — it was 23 degrees outside. Perfect conditions for sleeping in and snuggling with Milo, her seven-month-old pitbull. Instead, she pulled herself out of bed to squeegee windows with her University of Delaware sorority sisters at a homeless shelter in Wilmington. On the other side of the glass? Eighty men and women huddled under blankets on metal folding chairs in the lobby, with nowhere else to go.
“Being here is a reminder of just how blessed we are,” said Stevens, a senior studying pre-veterinary medicine at UD. She is also president of the University’s Alpha Kappa Alpha chapter. “When I first volunteered here, I was overwhelmed by the amount of people in need. But it’s important to remember that giving back, even in a small way, can have a big impact.”
Such is the enduring influence of King, hero of the civil rights movement and prolific advocate of social justice. Half a century after his assassination, King’s message lives on in groups like Alpha Kappa Alpha, the first sorority founded for black college women in the United States. Their mission? To be of service to all mankind.
“We idolize MLK,” said Kailyn Broughton, a junior biological sciences major at UD. “He made it easier for us to stand up for our communities, so we feel a responsibility to do so.”
The group participated in a weekend of service that kicked off Sunday at the fifth annual MLK Voices for Youth competition at the Baby Grand Theater in Wilmington. At the event, sponsored by Alpha Kappa Alpha’s graduate chapter, 10 area high school students recited original essays, poems and raps about King’s legacy — and how that legacy resonates in their lives today.
“Injustice is not a thing of the past,” said contestant Nyani Scott, a junior at Dover High School, whose poem about confronting white privilege earned her a $2,000 first prize. While she is still deciding on college plans, it’s possible she will follow in the footsteps of three former Voices-for-Youth participants studying at UD. “My message is that we have not moved beyond inequality. And this means — every day — putting on a brave face and being strong.”
While the performers engaged an audience of 250, sorority members manned a voter registration booth in the theatre lobby, paying homage to King’s work ushering the Voting Rights Act through Congress. This law, passed in 1965, outlawed discriminatory practices, such as taxes and literacy tests, that applied only to blacks at the polls.
“There is still a lot of pain and hurt among minorities,” said Kayla Williams, a junior communication major at UD. “Our hope is that people will listen to the powerful insight being offered today and use it to become more informed voters. It’s true what they say: You are the change you want to see in the future.”
Particularly gratified by this registration campaign was contest attendee and civil rights activist Kenneth Salaam, who dropped out of high school at 16 to work with King. Known as Freedom Smitty, he led crowds in song before King took the stage at demonstrations. In 1966, he walked 220 miles from Memphis to Jackson, Mississippi, in what became known as the “March Against Fear.” Along the way, Salaam said he watched King urge fellow citizens to vote, no matter the risk to his personal safety.
“We were beaten up, hosed and gassed,” Salaam said. “Honestly, I didn’t always know if I would survive. But to live long enough to see your efforts pay off, that’s rewarding.”
According to contest judge Dr. Rev. Lawrence M. Livingston, the registration booth also served as a symbolic acknowledgement: There is still much work to be done.
“The radical perspective of Dr. King has been silenced,” said Livingston, an assistant professor of Africana Studies at UD. “So often, the dream has been sterilized and watered down to become a kumbaya type of moment. But Dr. King was much more radical, much more about change, much more about addressing structural violence in the world. It’s important to not just magnify the touchy-feely parts of Dr. King’s message, but to look at the transformational, revolutionary parts, too. The young people here today… they get it.”
This desire to live King’s message — rather than pay it lip service — carried over to Monday morning at the Sunday Breakfast Mission, a homeless shelter and addiction recovery center in Wilmington that sleeps an average of 200 people per night. When the sorority sisters arrived, they were immediately put to work painting and spackling walls in the women’s dormitory and scrubbing scuff marks off walls in the lobby — tasks that can’t be managed by a barebones staff of 23.
“I won’t ask you to clean the toilets,” said Jackie Armstrong, corporate relations manager for the mission.
“I don’t mind,” responded Nadja Lawrence, a member of the graduate chapter, as she headed into the bathroom. “I’ve got gloves!”
In the shelter’s warehouse, another group of Alpha Kappa Alphas worked to a soundtrack of gospel music as they sorted hundreds of personal hygiene products — from tubes of toothpaste to sanitary napkins — that will later be made into “hope totes” for the homeless.
“It’s nice to see how much has been donated,” said Kimberly Reid, who graduated from UD’s College of Arts and Sciences in 1997. “At the same time, it’s overwhelming to see all this in bulk, and to realize how many people don’t have access to the things we take for granted.”
Witnessing the work of the UD volunteers was a heartening experience for Wayne Smith, a 39-year-old resident who has lived at the shelter since September. Despite coming from a poverty-stricken town in New Jersey, he earned a two-year degree and landed a decent job making $40 an hour at a glass manufacturer. But Smith fell into a cycle of addiction and depression. He lost everything.
“There was a point where I didn’t want to go on,” he said. “I’d hit rock bottom. To have people offer help, free of charge, just because they care? That’s encouraging. It lets you know: Maybe this isn’t the end of the world.”
Now, Smith has completed the shelter’s addiction recovery program, and he’s working on finishing his bachelor’s degree online. It’s the reason, he said, he identifies with King’s message of “audacious hope,” and also why he encourages others to volunteer.
“Regardless of race, creed, color, position or title, there’s no guarantee anyone is going to make it in this life without help,” he said. “So it’s good to lend a hand without judgment.”
It’s a call to action that the sisters of Alpha Kappa Alpha won’t have trouble heeding.
“So many have sacrificed to get us where we are,” said Stevens, pausing a moment to inspect her squeegee work on the shelter’s glass doors. “We have no excuse not to give back.”