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Jeff Johnson Speaks at MLK Day Celebration

A small yet intimate crowd paid their respects to the trailblazing figurehead of the civil rights movement, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., at the Schwab Auditorium last night for the 27th Annual Evening Celebration.

The night began with an arousing performance from the joint vocal ensemble, Essence of Joy and the United Soul Ensemble. With the accompaniment of choral director, Dr. Leach, and an outfit of drums, piano and bass, the musical performance set the mood that resembled a Southern Baptist church service with soulful, gospel lyrics and vocals that hummed against the rafters.

After a brief introduction by co-directors, Anessa Cross and Cory Payton, the night’s Keynote Speaker, Jeff Johnson, swaggered onto the stage with his signature braided locks and a commanding air.

Johnson is famously known for his dedication to addressing issues of race and social struggles in his award-winning investigative journalism. You may recognize Johnson for his past appearances on the BET series Rap City, playing the character of “Cousin Jeff.” He is also the vice president of Russell Simmons’ Hip Hop Summit Action Network and the national director of the Youth & College division of the NAACP. White people, you may have have caught a glimpse of Johnson being a liberal guest commentator on MSNBC.

Despite Johnson’s long list of achievements, he spoke with the frank, cool attitude of a favorite college professor. However, unlike in most lecture hall classes, Johnson encouraged feedback from the crowd in the form of “African American oratory” or as he put it “mhm, ahmen, or yo dawg.”

As MLK day passes and Black History Month approaches, Johnson urged those in attendance to dig deeper into the media’s “fulfillment of culturally responsible programming for the year” and the “Cracker Jack” version of Rev. King that is portrayed through Nightline specials and breezed-over mentions in history classes. Johnson pushed students to dig deeper than the iconic 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech to uncover the spirit of service and social justice behind the movement that defined racial equality in America.

Johnson offered a portrayal of Dr. King as a well-educated 25 year-old activist who had no interest in leading bus boycotts. MLK was not a leader but a servant. He was not perfect but he was prepared. With a dedication to knowledge and equality rather than fame and recognition, King was able to set into motion the realization of a nation where “all men are created equal.”

The theme of this year’s MLK commemoration was “Stand Up.” This seemed fitting in today’s political climate, since everyone–including Rick Santorum–appears to have a shallow stance they fiercely defend on their Twitter accounts. What is lacking, according to Johnson, is the purpose-driven activism and spirit of selfless service that MLK embodied.

Johnson challenged those in attendance to be leaders but to avoid becoming the “leaders of nothing” that riddle today’s political sphere. To Johnson, that requires challenging the status quo while asking the “uncomfortable” questions.

Becoming a leader like MLK requires turning down the political influences of those like Jay-Z and Kanye West who view their fame as a free ticket to being socially conscious. Taking on the spirit of social change requires more than voting for “the black dude” in order be part of making history. To be like MLK, it takes commitment to a cause that “itches at your skin and burns at you inside.” It can even sometimes means acting like a gangster. Because what’s more gangster than non-violence?

Being uncomfortable is a necessary part of change. Johnson’s words spoke as an inspiring call to action whereby the youth of our generation will cast out their own vision of the future and take it upon themselves to have the education and determination to be the change they hope to see.

Johnson believed Penn State was an ideal test case for tomorrow’s activists.

“Don’t cry about what the university doesn’t do or kiss behind to be a model political leader in the eyes of the administration,” he said, urging students to talk about what’s taboo and politically incorrect.

“Fight for the things that the university has potential to do but not the will.”

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