On Monday, Jan. 18, groups and organizations across campus hosted events to honor the life of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 53rd year since his death.
Events that were held included: a multi-denominational worship service that used King’s words, writings, and favorite scripture, Lunch and Learn: Community Conversation on the Capitol Insurrection, Red Cross Blood Drive, Keynote Address with social justice educator, Jen Fry, MLK Day clothing drive, Living His Legacy: Advocacy and Activism in Healthcare, MLK Speech Screening with alumni from 1967-1969, The Pursuit of Racial Progress Workshop, MLK Vigil: Tribute to Black Lives and the MLK Virtual Poetry Night.
Events were hosted by multiple organizations, including the Black Student Union, Multicultural Student Union and the Office of Diversity and Inclusion.
“I think it’s incredibly important to participate in events like these ones and learn about not just MLK but other black activists who helped fight against inequality,” said Amelia Earl (‘22).
The Black Lives Matter movement and themes of police brutality, racial disparities in healthcare and justice were at the forefront of this year’s MLK Day events. The intention of the day was to keep the conversation about race going and reflect on King’s impact throughout history and today.
“Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a prominent and profound voice in the history of the movement for Black Lives, and it’s [important] that we cherish his legacy because there’s still so much we can learn from him,” said Mx. David Parnell III (‘21).
The term “Black Lives Matter” was first created in 2016 following the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who killed 17 year old black man, Trayvon Martin. After news of Zimmerman’s acquittal was public, #BlackLivesMatter trended on the internet.
However, the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s showed similar themes, and King preached about the same things over 50 years ago.
According to a study done in 1968–the year King was assassinated–nearly 75% of the American population disapproved of the civil rights activist. In a similar poll done 50 years later in 2018, results showed that over 90% of Americans now approve of his ideas and beliefs (Smithsonian).
“When I was in highschool, MLK day was used to make us think that we had fixed racism and that MLK was loved and respected in his time–but he wasn’t,” said Salem Gray (‘23).
“It wasn’t until years after his death that he was seen as a hero, and I didn’t learn about that until I started going to these events and hearing about his legacy from POC and not from the public school system.”
Following George Floyd’s death last summer and the Black Lives Matter movement being at the forefront of conversation, some people questioned whether King would condone the protesting and rioting that took place.
“I feel like [King] would fully support the protests now,” said Lauryn Bishop (‘23), who added that 93% of the Black Lives Matter protests were peaceful.
“I believe [King] would have [participated] in protests, campaigns and efforts rooted in his theological tradition that called him to speak up for the marginalized, persecuted and oppressed,” said Chaplain and Director of Spiritual Life Andrew Pomerville.
Though King preached non-violence and strived for peace, he also recognized that Black people had to fight for their freedom and their rights, and pushed the Black community to do just that.
“Through the years, this framing of King’s legacy has been used against his own community to invalidate, confuse and disrupt the present efforts of the movement for Black Lives,” said Parnell, referring to the recent protests and riots and the way society framed them.
“Our 2021 observance of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Day shows we have successfully disrupted this gaze to include the complex truth of King’s legacy—not by totally expelling these distracting thoughts but acknowledging them as not the whole truth.”
Many students, faculty and staff believe the MLK Day events help keep the conversation about racism and discrimination going, and show that even though King died over 50 years ago, the topics he discussed are still relevant today.
“I think if we don’t continue to participate in events like these we risk becoming complacent and stop fighting for more equality,” said Earl.
“We, as students and citizens of this country, should continue to learn about Dr. King for the same reason we engage with Anti-Racist work in our era,” said Parnell.
“Black people have consistently saved our republic through our blood, labor and contributions to society, while simultaneously dehumanized, unjustly slain and neglected by public health institutions, and our culture and contributions undermined by the racism left unaddressed everywhere from within our education systems to our federal legislation.”
It took 15 years to recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a national holiday, with many states choosing instead to celebrate Confederate leader, Robert E. Lee. However, MLK Day is celebrated on the third Monday of January to honor the work the civil rights activist put in during his time on Earth, as well as the work that has happened because of him.