Toiling Along King’s High Way
Earlier this week, campuses across the country joined the rest of the nation in observing Martin Luther King Jr. Day. This is the first year since the federal holiday was launched in 1986 in which all 50 states have recognized it. The last state, New Hampshire, came into the fold only last summer.
Despite this achievement, I have observed in the past 14 years that many Americans still view King Day as a Black holiday rather than an opportunity for people of all races to come together to celebrate our diversity and national commitment to justice and peace for all.
Postsecondary institutions must play a role in leading the nation toward a better understanding of King’s legacy. Scholars and institutions that use King’s “I Have A Dream” speech to justify their condemnation of programs designed to give underrepresented students access to educational opportunity should be ashamed of themselves. Such anti-contextual manipulation of King’s words is an affront to what he fought and died for.
Even more common is the practice by some campuses to impose the full responsibility of organizing King Day activities on the office of minority affairs. In many cases, all of the speakers participating in King Day activities are Black, and Black professors are sometimes the only ones whose courses seriously explore King’s contribution to social justice in this country. If these situations sound familiar, your institution may be part be of the problem. And if you are among those who treat King Day as if it were a Black holiday, you are part of the problem.
I am not for a minute suggesting that Black folks be excluded from King Day activities. It is unconscionable to think of observing this event without also reviewing this country’s ugly legacy of oppression against African Americans. But King’s message wasn’t limited to fighting for the rights of Blacks. Women, other people of color, people with disabilities, immigrants, gays and even heterosexual White men are all benefactors of the struggles waged by King, his colleagues and successors. And until people of all races can accept and articulate what this legacy means for them — as individuals and for the nation as a whole — the holiday is a squandered opportunity.
Of course today, some 32 years after King was slain, overt racism is less widely tolerated in American society. Still, as the cover story of this edition reveals (see page 14), Black folks — even those who head postsecondary institutions — often face challenges made more complex by their race. And when Black leaders fall, for whatever reasons, we all feel it. Yet, avoiding the call to lead or reigning in bold aspirations as a risk aversion tactic are contrary to King’s example and do nothing to improve our collective plight.
King, of all people, understood that it would be a long time before the masses of Americans truly understood that he was fighting for all of us — even longer before his ambitious goal of a nation free of racial injustice was achieved. He expected our individual and institutional prejudices to occasionally cloud our vision along this steep and treacherous path. Still, he knew, as we now must, that we have no choice but to climb.
As 21st-century educators who are the benefactors of King’s legacy, you are among those who can and must now lead the way. The place where you can have the greatest impact may indeed be on your own campus. So, raise your torch and dig in.
Cheryl D. Fields
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