I was privileged to attend to 50th anniversary celebration of the H. Fred Simons African American Cultural Center on Saturday night, and to sit next to Dr. James Lyons, Sr., a UConn alum and the first director of the Center. You can see a few photos that were posted during the event on Twitter. I was also asked to say a few words during the celebration. Here’s what I said:
Thank you Willena.
It is a pleasure and a privilege to greet you tonight, although it is a little odd to welcome you when you’re already eating dessert. It is also dangerous for anyone to give me a captive audience, so I also congratulate Willena on her courage in trusting me, and I promise that I will be brief. I know that the real program comes after me, and I also understand that there may be a party you want to get to.
We live in frightening times, but 1968 (when the African American Cultural Center was started) was also a frightening time. Our country was embroiled in the Vietnam War, student protests were exploding, and our cities were burning. There were riots at the Democratic National Convention, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, and on April 4th the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was gunned down in Memphis.
But 1968 was also a year of hope and promise: The Civil Rights Act was signed into law, the 3rd season of Star Trek featured the first interracial kiss on national TV, and perhaps most important of all, LL Cool J was born on January 14.
1968 was also the year when students, faculty, and staff at UConn came together to establish the African American Cultural Center.
For the last 50 years, the Center has been a vital part of campus life at UConn. Its dedication to cultural preservation, leadership, and academic excellence is a vital part of making UConn one of the nation’s leading public universities.
As a nation we were founded on the principle that all people are created equal and that we all have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I don’t need to tell anyone here that we have often fallen short of this lofty principle. Indeed, I need only to mention the names of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, or Laquan McDonald to remind us how far we have to go.
But at a time when violent political rhetoric seeks to divide us, the work of the African American Cultural Center is more important than ever. It enriches us all by showcasing the culture, history, and traditions of people of African descent. It binds us together as people and inspires us to imagine a future in which everyone is valued for their unique contribution and in which the culture, history, and traditions of all people are treated with the respect they deserve.
I am honored to play a small part in celebrating the Center’s 50th anniversary this evening, and I am delighted to have the privilege of welcoming you to this celebration.