On Jan. 20, Barack Obama will be sworn in as president of the United States. The day prior, the country will observe what would have been the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 80th birthday. The historic nature of President-elect Obama’s inauguration -- which some see as a fulfillment of King’s dream for America -- has influenced many colleges and universities across the country to celebrate and observe the inauguration and the holiday together.
The occasion will take on a special meaning for Morehouse College, King’s alma mater in Atlanta. Martin Luther King III will headline a panel discussion entitled “From King to Obama, Where Do We Go from Here?” The event will be hosted at the Willard Hotel in Washington, where King stayed the night before the March on Washington and where he wrote his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Several other colleges are also combining observances of the inauguration with Martin Luther King’s birthday, hosting discussions on the historical significance of Obama’s ascent to office. St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y. will mark the holiday with an event entitled “From King to Obama: Today’s Meaning of the Movement.” Alma College in Michigan, will host a similarly themed “Where Do We Go from Here?” discussion with faculty members and local civil rights activists following the inauguration. As part of its week-long observance of King’s Birthday, Ohio Wesleyan University will present a lecture by Emmanuel K. Twesigye, religion and black world studies professor, entitled “President Barack Obama and Dr. M.L. King’s Dream: Myth and Reality.”
On campus, many institutions are hosting large viewing parties on Inauguration Day. Harcum College, in Pennsylvania. will suspend classes for part of the day to mark the occasion and encourage its students to attend a large-screen viewing of the events in its main dining hall. Kent State University, in Ohio, and the College of New Jersey plan to set up multiple viewing locations around their campuses so that professors and students from residence halls to lecture halls will have the ability to see the parade and ceremony.
Tidewater Community College in Norfolk, Va. is extending an invitation to the its surrounding neighborhood to gather for the event. It will host an inauguration simulcast on the large-screen of its downtown performing arts center, a restored 1920’s Loew’s Theater, which can seat 800.
“This is the first-time we’ve done something like this,” said Laurie S. White, Tidewater spokeswoman, adding that she anticipates a capacity crowd given the excitement on her campus. “We still have classes that day, but we’re expecting some classes to join us in the theater for the event.”
For other institutions, however, a simple viewing party will not suffice. A number of institutions, responding to great demand from their students, are sponsoring trips to Washington for those who wish to see the inauguration firsthand. Morehouse’s Division of Student Services will take two busloads of students to Washington on a first-come, first-serve basis. The University of Rochester is also helping fund a project entitled “Get on the Bus,” which will carry 150 students to Washington. Participating students will blog about their experience on the university’s Web site.
A group of journalism students at DePaul University, in Obama’s hometown of Chicago, plan to cover the festivities in Washington. They will be accompanied by Mike Conklin of the Chicago Tribune, who led a similar trip with students to the Iowa caucuses earlier this year.
Also joining the student blogosphere for the event, two students from Whittier College in California will cover the event as part of a fellowship program. The students have been blogging about President-elect Obama since before the election.
“Hearing Obama's speech tonight was powerful, especially since I haven't listened to any of his full speeches during the campaign,” writes Neslie Tumulac, Whittier junior, in her inauguration blog. “Whittier College students cheered throughout the speech, shouting YES WE CAN every time after Obama. It was empowering... As young voters, we have moved onto the next step of where we want to be and where we want our country to go.”
Teresa Baranowski, Whittier senior, has been writing about the response to the election of Obama during her semester abroad in Spain.
“Since the election, whenever a conversation starts between myself and a Spaniard, they always ask about Obama before almost everything else,” she writes in her inauguration blog. “There is an overwhelming sense of joy and hope stemming from the change that Obama has promised. It will be interesting to see if this feeling stays the same or changes as Obama begins his presidency.”
Though many will have to travel great distances to attend the inauguration, the colleges and universities in Washington will have a front-row seat for events.
“Every four years, this is one of the best parts of being an institution of higher education in the District of Columbia,” said Patricia A. McGuire, president of Trinity University. “In the past, we’ve encouraged students to go to inaugural events. I think, however, Barack Obama’s inaugural, for a campus that is majority African American, raises the bar of excitement.”
Among other events, Trinity will celebrate the inauguration with a luncheon entitled “In Celebration of Community Organizers,” a theme McGuire said recognizes and celebrates President-elect Obama’s work in the field. Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund, will be the keynote speaker for the event. McGuire said she hopes the event will inspire her students and provide them with a good networking opportunity, noting that many Trinity students enter the non-profit sector.
As for all of the visiting students in town for the inauguration, McGuire said she hopes they will actually show up.
“There’s a lot of scare tactics out there, and I’m worried that a lot of people won’t come,” she said. “Still, I think we’ll work it out. This city is well-versed in handling crowds. Don’t not come just because you’re afraid of crowds.”