Nov. 4, 2008, was a bittersweet day for award-winning documentary filmmaker Yoruba Richen. In the span of a few hours, Richen saw American voters elect the country’s first African-American president and California voters pass Proposition 8, a referendum banning same-sex marriage statewide.
“As an African-American lesbian, these fights for civil rights and human rights, which have been such a large part of our recent national dialogue, have also been extremely emotional for me,” Richen explained. “After getting angry, my next instinct was to make a movie.”
Richen discussed that film, The New Black, during her keynote address Thursday afternoon at “A Tribute to the Dream,” Northeastern University’s annual celebration honoring the life and legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. More than 300 people packed the Curry Student Center Ballroom for this moving tribute, while others watched in a designated overflow room as well as online via live stream.
“The gay rights movement took several pages from Dr. King,” said Richen, who directs the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism’s documentary program. “Protests, marches, Supreme Court cases, all of which advanced LBGTQ rights, came from the civil rights movement handbook.”
At the event Thursday, both Richen and Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun noted the importance of society rededicating itself to the fight for equality. They pointed to recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City as evidence that progress to achieving equality is not inevitable.
“In recent weeks and months, we have witnessed profound injustices,” Aoun noted. “Tragic events have torn the fabric of our society. These events, fresh in our minds, sadden and anger us, and over the long term they force us to seek a better outcome.”
“One of the most salient lessons we have learned in recent months is the fight for equal rights in this country is one that will likely never have a definitive end,” Richen declared. “We may have victories along the way, but it’s a battle that must be fought. And even when it seems the battle has been won, all too often it must be re-fought over and over again.”
Richen said another motivating factor for pursuing her The New Black project was incorrect news reports that Proposition 8 passed because African-Americans overwhelmingly voted for the measure, thus “perpetuating the stereotype of pervasive homophobia within the African-American community.” The film, which won the award for best documentary at the Urbanworld Film Festival in 2013, tells the story of the battle for marriage equality in Maryland in 2010, while also delving into the African-American community’s understanding of gay rights.
“It was clear to me the pitting of these movements against each other just didn’t make sense,” said Richen, who shared a clip from the film at Thursday’s event. “It seemed so obvious that the movements were actually interconnected.”
In his remarks, Aoun also highlighted the importance of embracing, not shunning, diversity in our society. He quoted King, saying that “the arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” and urged those in attendance to carry out King’s legacy in their daily lives both on campus and beyond.
“Northeastern is brilliant in its diversity,” Aoun added. “We represent many races and beliefs. We share a boundless devotion to the principles of equality and free expression. Our diversity is not a zero-sum game; it is additive.”
Aoun highlighted two ways in which the Northeastern community embodies King’s commitment to serving others. On Monday, hundreds of Northeastern students and community members will participate in the university’s annual MLK Day of Service and Leadership by partaking in service projects and workshops focused on improving the community.
Aoun also hailed the School of Law’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project, which is led by law professor Margaret Burnham and conducts research and supports policy initiatives on anti-civil rights violence in the United States and other miscarriages of justice of that period. Most recently, as a result of CRRJ’s efforts, a state judge in South Carolina exonerated a 14-year-old African-American youth wrongly convicted and executed in 1944 in the deaths of two white girls.
Thursday’s program included two videos that amplified King’s message. The event began with a black-and-white video in which College of Arts, Media and Design lecturer Maurice Emmanuel Parent recited excerpts from King’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 1963. A second video featured Northeastern students and local youth reciting parts of King’s “I have a dream” speech and discussing how his message carries forward today.
The event closed with Northeastern’s Unity Gospel Ensemble performing two songs: Wake Up Everybody by Teddy Pendergrass and Somebody to Love by Queen.