Colby Will Celebrate the Life and Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. 

Keynote address from prominent civil rights attorney, self-portraits, and opportunities to volunteer will mark birthday of the national icon

By Abigail Curtis
January 13, 2023

When it comes to Americans who tell the truth, few did so as bravely as activist and civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 

Colby will mark King’s birthday on Monday, Jan. 16, by celebrating his life and legacy through reflection, education, and engagement. One of the events, Americans Who Tell the Truth, An MLK Day Art Project, invites participants to create their own self-portraits as inspired by Maine artist Robert Shetterly’s Americans Who Tell The Truth portrait project. 

Shetterly’s portrait of King shows him with a thoughtful and steadfast look on his face, and a quote scratched carefully into the paint above him. The words are from the lecture he gave in Oslo, Norway, after being awarded the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize: “Non-violence is a powerful and just weapon … which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals.” 

Shetterly’s evolving project uses the power of art to illuminate the ongoing struggle to realize the nation’s democratic ideals and model the commitment to act for the common good. The portraits have become a way to foster community dialogue around citizenship, democracy, education, and activism. 

A chance to reflect

From 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday at the Paul J. Schupf Art Center, 93 Main St., Waterville, people who drop in will receive art materials to make a self-portrait, then write a short narrative about an event, person, or belief that helped shape them become who they are. The event is for Colby students, the Colby campus community, and the larger Waterville community. 

The art project is part of the long-running partnership between Waterville Creates and the Colby College Museum of Art, according to Jillian Impastato, the Mirken Coordinator of Campus and Community Collaboration at the museum. 

“It’s exciting to see how our collaborations will evolve in our new building,” she said. 

Such collaborations and programs happen year-round, she said, and are among the ways that the museum can use art to help students and the greater community think more deeply about holidays. Martin Luther King Jr. Day has been a federal holiday since 1986. 

“MLK and his legacy are so complex, and so often really oversimplified,” Impastato said. “We see this as a scaffolding of conversation over multiple years, and we hope that through different programs over the years, we can engage the same people so that their understanding of him and his legacy, and what we’re celebrating on this day, can grow much deeper.” 

A powerful keynote speaker

As well, prominent civil rights attorney Sherrilyn Ifill, the former president and director-counsel of the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund, will present the College’s MLK keynote address at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 18. Ifill taught civil procedure and constitutional law for 20 years to thousands of students at the University of Maryland School of Law in Baltimore. She also helped pioneer a series of law clinics focused on challenging legal barriers to the reentry into society of former offenders. 

Sherrilyn Ifill

Ifill, a cousin of the late trailblazing journalist Gwen Ifill, is an accomplished author, too. Her 2007 book, On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the 21st Century, is credited with laying the foundation for contemporary conversations about lynching and reconciliation. 

She’ll offer brief remarks and then take questions from the moderator and virtual attendees. To submit questions in advance, please send them to Emily Schusterbauer by Tuesday, Jan. 17, at [email protected]. Please click here to join the event via Zoom. The webinar ID is 951 7733 1307.

Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Professor of Sociology and African-American Studies, Emerita  and presidential liaison and advisor at the College, will moderate the keynote address.

Gilkes, who taught at the College for 35 years, is an ordained minister with expertise on African-American religious history, race, and ethnicity in the United States, and assistant pastor for special projects at the Union Baptist Church in Cambridge, Mass. She holds degrees in sociology from Northeastern University (B.A., M.A., Ph.D.) and has pursued graduate theological studies at Boston University’s School of Theology. She is the recipient of an honorary doctor of divinity degree from Ursinus College in Pennsylvania.

In Gilkes’s research, teaching, and writing, she has focused on the role of African-American women in creating social change and on the diverse roles of Black Christian women in the 20th century. She has written books and essays, edited journals, and delivered lectures and papers at colleges, universities, and conferences in the United States and across the world. 

Opportunities to volunteer

The College community also is invited to honor King in another way on Saturday, Jan. 28, by volunteering at the South End Neighborhood Association Winterfest in Waterville. At the January Service Saturday event, there will be opportunities to help with the sledding hill, serve food, help with snowshoes, and supervise warming stations. Those interested are encouraged to contact Paige Begley by Friday, Jan. 20 at [email protected].

Due to inclement weather, the Joan Dignam Schmaltz Gallery of Art in the Paul J. Schupf Art Center is closed today, January 16, and the Waterville Creates + Colby College Museum of Art presents: Americans Who Tell the Truth, an MLK Day Art Project program has been cancelled as a result. Gallery staff look forward to seeing visitors when the regular gallery hours resume on Wednesday.