Barry and I travelled to Oberlin College in Ohio this past weekend for our 50th class reunion. Can it have been that long since we graduated? My husband and I met while washing dishes at May Cottage and our first date was at this laundromat, still standing. What a romantic that boy was!
The Class of 1965 wasn’t particularly big to begin with, but an astonishingly large number turned out for this reunion, beating all previous records for Oberlin 50th reunions.
It was a time to get reacquainted with classmates, reminisce about the past and talk about the future. Happily, our former roommates were there – Jim Fletcher and Anahid Katchian – who were best man and maid of honor, respectively, at our wedding.
Oberlin has always been a place apart. Established in 1833, the college admitted black students in 1835 and women just two years later. In 1862, Oberlin graduated Mary Jane Patterson, the first black woman to earn a BA degree from an American college, and the town was a key junction on the Underground Railroad, connecting at least five routes that led from slavery to freedom. No fugitive in Oberlin was ever returned to bondage.
This legacy persists. Our class motto, emblazoned on the souvenir hats for the weekend is SEMPER PROVOCANTES, Latin for (very loosely translated) “always stirring things up.”
And indeed we did. Oberlin College in the mid-60s was a hotbed of social activism – protest marches, freedom rides, rebuilding burned out black churches in the rural south. In the words of Jeff Piker, class of 1963, “In order to know what’s happening, you have to be what’s happening."
I am certain that this was one reason Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. visited the college so many times in the 50s and 60s and accepted our invitation as commencement speaker in June of 1965.
In his address, “Staying Awake Through a Great Revolution” Dr. King recalled the story of Rip Van Winkle and went on to urge graduates to “continue the tradition that you have followed so long, for this institution has probably done more than any other to support the struggle for racial justice. You have given your time, you have given your earnings, you have given your bodies, you have participated in demonstrations, you have participated in the determined struggle to keep this issue in the forefront of the conscience of the nation. I urge you to continue to do so as you go out into your various fields of endeavor. Never allow it to be said that you are silent onlookers, detached spectators, but that you are involved participants in the struggle to make justice a reality.
“We have inherited a big house,” he told us, “a great world house in which we have to live together - black and white, Easterners and Westerners, Gentiles and Jews, Protestants and Catholics, Moslem and Hindu. If we all learn to do this we, in a real sense, will remain awake through a great revolution.”
Last Monday, May 25, First Lady Michelle Obama built on King’s great legacy in her remarks to the 2015 graduating class who had conferred upon her an honorary degree. “I should be here today,” she began. “Oberlin is likely the only college in America that I could have attended nearly two centuries ago, and I am honored to be part of the extraordinary legacy of this great institution.
"I want to suggest that if you truly wish to carry on the Oberlin legacy of service and social justice, then you need to run to, and not away from, the noise. Today, I want to urge you to actively seek out the most contentious, polarized, gridlocked places you can find. Because so often, throughout our history, those have been the places where progress really happens — the places where minds are changed, lives transformed, where our great American story unfolds."
Oberlin’s multi-faith baccalaureate service on Sunday featured a panel discussion entitled "Remaining Awake: 50 Years Later" with Johnnetta B. Cole ’57, director of the National Museum of African Art; Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund; Alan B. Wachtel ’68, founder and director of Familyhealth Associates; and U.S. Senator Harris L. Wofford of Pennsylvania, all of whom knew and worked with Dr. King. Excerpts from Dr King’s commencement address were played -- wonderful to hear his voice again! -- and at the end of the service, the large audience linked arms and sang “We Shall Overcome.” With tears in my eyes, I found myself thinking about all the progress we haven’t made since 1965, about how it seems sometimes that the world has taken two steps forward and one step back.
Today, just as it was fifty years ago, it's time to step up and walk toward the noise, not wringing our hands and wondering what can be done, but asking instead what can I do?