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Wrighton, Racine deliver keynote address to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service

Rachel Schwartz | Staff Photographer
Nashman Center volunteers lined up in Kogan Plaza and the Mount Vernon Campus quad to hand out free t-shirts and boxed lunches to students throughout the Day of Service.

The University kicked off its weeklong celebration of the life of Martin Luther King Jr. with its annual Day of Service Monday, featuring interim University President Mark Wrighton and D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine.

Speakers at the event talked about King’s political and social legacy in the District, the state of civil rights in the United States and GW’s role in the quest for racial equality. About 250 students participated in the Day of Service event, which included online service events with the Smithsonian Transcription Center, the National Archives’ Citizen Archivist program and the Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop – a nonprofit seeking to educate young people who are incarcerated or formerly incarcerated.

Students wrote transcriptions and descriptions of different historical documents and artifacts through the Smithsonian and National Archives, and they provided feedback to the Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop on creative works and lessons for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people.

Wrighton said the United States has not delivered the full level of equality and opportunity that King envisioned during the Civil Rights Movement. He said the Black Lives Matter movement, which prompted nationwide protests against systematic racism and police brutality in 2020, pointed out many widespread issues of racial inequity.

“We’re more than 50 years from the death of Dr. King, but his messages and the Civil Rights Movement more broadly remain just as important as ever, particularly in the wake of important movements such as Black Lives Matter,” he said at the event. “During the past several decades, we have seen some progress in this country, progress in acceptance and equity, but we’ve not yet achieved the truly inclusive community for which Dr. King aspired to see.”

The Nashman Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service hosted the event, which was moderated by Amy Cohen, the executive director of the Nashman Center. Nashman Center volunteers also lined up in Kogan Plaza and the Mount Vernon Campus quad to hand out free t-shirts and boxed lunches to students throughout the Day of Service.

Wrighton said he would commit to expanding need-based scholarships at GW, work with outside organizations to overcome health care disparities and promote equity and inclusion policies during his presidency to lessen the impact of racial inequality at GW and elsewhere. In October 2021, officials launched a new “focused initiative” to make GW more affordable for Pell-eligible students through additional scholarships and fellowships during the next several years.

“Today and every day, we must work together to dismantle systemic racism while developing and deepening a community committed to the values of racial equity, democracy and to care for others that was exemplified by Dr. King,” he said.

Wrighton said GW would not “settle on its accomplishments” when combating inequality and racism, and the community would continue to conduct research and work on finding solutions to current social problems.

“I look forward to working with everyone in this community to strengthen the relationship of GW with the District of Columbia, and I believe that we can make continued progress in the era ahead,” he said.

Racine, the D.C. attorney general, said GW was one of the best schools in the United States to learn about civil rights and economic disparity because of students’ presence in the District and faculty’s involvement in politics and public policy.

“You’re at an extraordinary university with Washington, D.C. as your campus,” he said. “There is nothing that GW professors can’t access, and there’s nothing that you can’t access to get the best education that the world has to offer.”

Racine said the D.C. Office of the Attorney General would continue to advocate for equal opportunities and civil rights in the District. He said voting restrictions that state legislatures have passed since the 2020 presidential election, some of which Racine has challenged in federal court, are racially discriminatory and infringe on voting rights.

“This is why my office, along with other states who are willing to fight for voting rights and fairness, have successfully led coalitions to oppose discriminatory voting laws in Florida, in North Carolina, in Alabama, in Mississippi and in South Carolina,” he said.

Racine said officials like states’ attorneys general can uphold civil rights and expand economic opportunities. He said legal cases against groups like slumlords, landlords who do not regularly maintain their properties, and discriminatory employers help increase opportunities for disenfranchised residents.

“As Dr. King said, ‘Morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. Judicial decrees may not change the heart, but they can restrain the heartless,’” he said. “What we seek to do at the Office of Attorney General is use the law to help people who can’t help themselves.”

Interim Provost Chrisopher Bracey, who introduced Wrighton at the event, said students should perform community service in their local communities to learn more about their neighborhoods and the issues that District residents face. He said community engagement and learning about social issues are crucial to academic achievement.

“We are supportive of the efforts of students and faculty to learn from and with our neighbors in D.C. as a way of revitalizing our communities and enhancing our scholarship,” he said. “Developing these relationships helps us to improve our ability to be good neighbors. I hope that you will continue to look beyond your service today and consider how your academic achievements can contribute to the improvement of the world and enhancement of our democracy.”

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