NIU alumni joined with faculty, staff and students last week to rededicate the bust of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as the statue returned to its home in the newly designed commons.
To make way for a transformation of the Holmes Student Center, including a new entranceway, the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Commons had to be regraded and reconfigured. The bust was temporarily relocated in March 2019 to a warehouse for safekeeping during renovations.
Returned to a garden spot about 75 feet west of its original location, the bust now stands adjacent to the student center’s new south entrance. And, as it has since its original dedication in 1993, it serves as a proud symbol of NIU’s passion and devotion to social justice, equity and inclusivity.
“The idea to first dedicate this space in homage to Dr. King and his vision came from students with the support of faculty and staff. These young people desired a place where they could share their thoughts, ideas, concerns and needs,” NIU President Lisa Freeman told a crowd gathered during Friday’s rededication ceremony.
“They were purposeful, and in their own right visionary, when they recommended that the space should be firmly between the library—to symbolize knowledge—and the Holmes Student Center—to symbolize the voices of our students.”
She encouraged all to return to the spot to “take it all in and carry back out with you the knowledge that your university cares about you, respects and welcomes different perspectives, and is committed to helping all communities seek peace, unity and justice.”
The gathering drew current and former members of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., the fraternity that sponsored the “serenity benches” placed in the MLK Commons in 1993 and helped drive the original MLK Commons dedication. Dr. King was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha.
In protest of a racial climate they believed the Northern Star had created through its coverage in the late 1980s and early 1990s, members of the fraternity once gathered in the commons to destroy copies of the newspaper, said NIU and Alpha Phi Alpha alum Maurice Thomas, who spoke at the ceremony.
The unity, resolve and collaboration shown by those involved back then helped lead to the original dedication of the MLK commons and the bust, he said.
The benches now serve as a tribute to two late NIU icons who fought for justice—Stacy Dolby and Willard Draper, he said. A housing administrator and advisor for NIU’s Alpha Phi Alpha chapter, Dolby housed young black men in his home in Sycamore during the 1960s, Thomas said.
Draper came to NIU as a student in the late 1960s and soon became a leader. Hired after his graduation in 1974, he served in a variety of roles before retiring in 2006.
“All of these men from Brother Dr. King to Brother Dolby to Brother Draper, they committed themselves to advocating for NIU students and for all they touched,” Thomas said.
Thomas also paid tribute to former NIU leaders, including John E. La Tourette, Eddie Williams—the “backbone of this MLK Commons project” —Don Buckner, Judd Baker, James Brunson, Van Amos and Larry Bolles, as well as current leaders.
He singled out Monique Bernoudy, assistant vice president of Academic Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, and Michelle Bringas, director of the Asian American Resource Center, as two leaders who fought for social causes then and continue to do so now.
Reflecting on how much the bust means to her, Student Association President Naomi Bolden told the crowd: “I can absolutely say if it weren’t for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I would not be here at NIU.”
As event moderator, Chief Diversity Officer Vernese Edghill-Walden referenced the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. quote on a plaque near the bust: “You have a responsibility to seek to make life better for everybody. And so you must be involved in the struggle of freedom and justice.”
“Let this quote and this bust be a reminder to all of us as we walk past every day that we must all have a role and responsibility to stand up for what’s right and to make life better for all,” Edghill-Walden said.