Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 3
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
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University Celebrates King and Obama

Ellen Gilbert

“President Obama’s cabinet could learn a lot from all of you,” said President Shirley Tilghman as she saluted the student essay and poster contest winners attending Princeton University’s Martin Luther King Day celebration on Monday afternoon in Richardson Hall. The students had been asked to respond to the question, “If he were alive today, what would Dr. King most want our newly elected president to be concerned about?”

Keynote speaker Hugh Price, the John Weinberg/Goldman Sachs visiting Professor of Public and International Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School, also acknowledged the students, describing them as “beautiful, brilliant children who are my heroes. This day belongs to them.”

The day also belonged to the 15-member Oasis Youth Steel Pan Ensemble, a Newark-based group who performed at the beginning and conclusion of the program.

Edwin S. Wilsey Professor of Operations Research and Financial Engineering William Massey was this year’s recipient of the Journey Award for Lifetime Service. In presenting the award, Ms. Tilghman cited Mr. Massey’s distinction in becoming the first African American full professor at the university. More than that, she noted, the day’s award was in recognition of his remarkable accomplishments as a “true mentor” to under-represented groups. The university did not award a Journey Prize in 2007.

The confluence of Martin Luther King Day and the inauguration of Barack Obama was a pervasive theme throughout the program. In his talk, Mr. Price described Mr. Obama’s victory as the product of decades’ long efforts “to understand one another.” He cited watershed events in black history, including the 1963 march on Washington, which he attended as a 21-year old usher, and he recalled writer James Baldwin’s wistful comment afterward that “perhaps we could make the kingdom real.” Mr. Price’s own ancestors were very much a part of American black history, including a soldier who fought in the American Revolution, members of a slave family, and, later, a great-grandfather who was on the team that helped Thomas Edison invent the electric light bulb. Calling to tell his 96-year old mother that Barack Obama had won the election on November 4, Mr. Price observed that these forefathers’ and her own “fingerprints are all over this.”

Mr. Price, a Yale Law School graduate, is the former head of the National Urban League. He was a member of the New York Times Editorial Board, served as a senior vice president of Thirteen/WNET public television in New York, and was appointed vice president of the Rockefeller Foundation. The author of the 2003 book, Achievement Matters, Mr. Price struck a more prescriptive note at the end of his talk, exhorting the African-American community not to allow young people to marry until they are at least 21 years old and have high school diplomas. He urged families — including fathers — to instill an appreciation for reading and writing in their children, encouraging them to dress right, and adopt preventive health habits. He called for “zero tolerance for low achievement in lousy schools,” and encouraged community members not to “wait for the next Martin,” or to sit back and let Mr. Obama take care of things, saying that “we can’t rely on charismatic leaders.” He did, however, note that “the new millennium finally arrives tomorrow.”

As they have in previous years, girls from Stuart Country Day School won the lion’s share of essay awards.

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