Event Celebrates the Life and Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.
“We have inherited a big house, a great ‘world house,’ in which we have to live together … because we can never again live without each other, [we] must learn, somehow, in this one big world, to live with each other.”
The words of Martin Luther King Jr. filled Roone Arledge Auditorium on Thursday during a special celebration of the civil rights leader’s life and legacy. The event, at which speakers took the podium to share excerpts from King’s speeches and sermons, brought together students and staff for an evening of reflection, food and community. It also served as the launch for the Undergraduate Community Initiative (UCI), a semester-long series of programming focused on deepening students’ understanding of and commitment to their responsibilities as members of a shared community. The initiative is a partnership among Columbia College, Columbia Engineering and Columbia General Studies, and centers on the values of belonging, respect and service.
Speaking at the outset, College Dean Josef Sorett described the inspiration for the event, which came from King’s final book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? In his remarks, he shared that he found himself continually returning to that question as events unfolded in recent months across the world and on campus.
“Choosing ‘community’ sounds simple, but it is anything but that,” Sorett said. “It requires ongoing commitment and shared conviction. And there is no such thing as community without confrontation with countless tensions — tensions that we must embrace and recognize for the opportunity they represent. We must take active steps to reassess and renew how we define this community. That may mean something different for each of us, but I am thankful that each of you took a step in that direction today.”
Sorett continued: “To my mind, in the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. we find so much of what I take to be promise, ambition and challenge of the kind of education you take part in at a place like Columbia — of the transformative possibilities of education and the importance of deep and sustained learning — of the value of learning, as we do, in the context of a collective.”
The event also featured remarks from Engineering Dean Shih-Fu Chang and General Studies Dean Lisa Rosen-Metsch. The readings from King’s work — each representing a different aspect of his leadership and advocacy — were presented by Teji Vijayakumar CC’24; HaYoung Jin SEAS’25; DeAngelo Hunter GS’24; Sunil Gulati, the Michael K. Dakolias Senior Lecturer in the Discipline of Economics; and Lisa Carnoy CC’89, a trustee emerita and the chair of the Columbia Alumni Association. The evening closed with a performance by a cappella group Uptown Vocal.
Sorett, who addressed the audience via Zoom due to testing positive for Covid-19 that morning, went on to describe the tensions that defined King’s life and work; he drew a connection between the issues and unrest that dominated King’s time, and the present. “Amidst a new season of tensions for our campus community, we confront, yet again, many questions that were familiar to King,” Sorett said. “When is our responsibility social critique? When is it community care? When is it a call to protest and speak out? And what does it mean to be a part of an institution that is and can never be a single thing — that by its nature resists a single point of view — and invites a community that is defined by an embrace of difference?”
Later, Chang announced the launch of the UCI, noting that Columbia’s undergraduate community is made up of “three unique schools sharing a common student experience.”
“Our goal is to find meaningful answers to the questions we face and to move forward together,” he said. “You all come from different backgrounds and different parts of the world, and have been adjusting to life as a college student. You have made new friends and met many people with different perspectives and life experiences. I think you will come to see this as one of the most important aspects of your time at Columbia. These values — belonging, respect and service — build on the strength of our diversity within our shared experience.”
Chang added that details on other events and opportunities to engage with the UCI will be shared in the coming weeks. In addition, the UCI website offers additional information, including an essay contest for undergraduates from the initiative’s three schools.
“By being here today, you have taken an active step with us in this effort,” Sorett said. “And I thank you for your continued engagement as we move our community forward, together.