By now, college campuses are beginning to plan their commemoration of the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. From a one-day celebration to a week of activities, King Day has become a significant event on practically every college campus in the nation. There will be speakers and banquets, service projects and film screenings, not just to remind the campus and broader community about King’s life and work, but to hopefully inspire us to pursue the beloved community King described.
As a native of Atlanta, King Day has always had a special meaning for me. I have modeled my time as an HBCU president after Dr. Benjamin Mays who was King’s president at Morehouse. He was more than his president but a mentor and friend, so much so that he delivered the eulogy at King’s funeral. I grew up having a chance to not only meet but engage with some of King’s closest comrades in the fight for civil rights. Joseph Lowery was my pastor for six years at Cascade United Methodist Church and helped us launch our social justice focus at Philander Smith College. I lived about a mile away from Andrew Young. I remember having dinner with John Lewis after he spoke at the Clinton School but had often seen him as he was my Congressman in Atlanta.
Over the years one of the most important engagements, I accept each year is a King Day speech. But over the years I have watched the continued devaluation of the man and his message. More specifically, on many campuses today King celebrations are nothing more than rehashing the same few quotations, while ignoring the cost that King says we must pay to achieve change.
So I have decided King Day 2024 is cancelled.
How many ways do we find to use “I Have A Dream” as part of the theme for the day or week? Years ago, Dr. Michael Eric Dyson proposed a moratorium on using any part of the speech, especially the thirty-four words that talk about the context of our character and color of our skin, words that have become the go-to for politicians, especially those who are hell bent on attacking equal rights, affirmative action, and racial justice.
We’ve been lazy and simply thrown together King Day events without exploring the full body of his work so that we learn more about King. Morehouse College houses the King collection which contains approximately 10,000 items, including hundreds of handwritten notes, speeches, manuscripts, and sermons. Even some of his most famous works have simply been made sound bites.
People know about the letter from Birmingham jail, but few have read the entire piece. When Aaron Rodgers referenced it during his vaccine controversy, he used King’s words out of context. Rodgers said “the great MLK said you have a moral obligation to object to unjust rules and rules that make no sense." But the fuller King context reads “One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.” It’s not simply about breaking unjust laws; it’s about being open and accepting consequences. Rodgers did neither.
When Donald Trump was president he spoke often about building a wall that Mexico would pay for. I began to wonder what did he say, if anything about walls? To my delight I found that King spoke about walls in 1964, giving two speeches, one from each side of the Berlin Wall. King preached, “For here on either side of the wall are God’s children, and no man-made barrier can obliterate that fact. Whether it be East or West, men and women search for meaning, hope for fulfillment, yearn for faith in something beyond themselves, and cry desperately for love and community to support them in this pilgrim journey.”
These are but two examples of the depth and breadth of the work of King. Because we have watered down his work, our campuses have been trapped in a narrow understanding of the man.
For this, King Day is cancelled.
But the most obvious reason that King Day is cancelled on campus for 2024 is because of the tremendous cowardice that is running rampant in higher education. Colleges and universities are under political attack. We watch laws being introduced and passed that prevent the teaching of subjects and offering certain majors and call for the abolition of offices and professionals that support diversity, equity and inclusion. A colleague shared with me that in his state, the message given to university leaders is that diversity, equity, and inclusion should not be used because they are trigger words. The Texas A&M system ordered schools to remove the words and the acronym DEI from their websites and social media.
Leaders have clearly chosen to protect their well-paying jobs over the mission of higher education as a place for free inquiry and exploration. Here in Louisiana, the Attorney General attempted to have a tenured faculty member punished for a tweet criticizing one of his staff members who attended a faculty meeting to speak against COVID practices the university was considering. The AG not only tweeted about his opposition, but had a conversation with the university president and publicly called for the faculty member to be disciplined.
The university’s statement could have applied to almost anything, saying that it “is committed to free and open scholarship and the freedom to debate ideas and principles without interference.” The AG was just elected Governor. The professor then announced this would be his last year. Faculty in several Southern states are making the same decisions.
Where is the bold outrage from leaders? I can’t think of any, and for this reason King Day is cancelled. We can’t continue to commemorate King without dealing with one of the strongest themes in his ministry: sacrifice. On October 14, 1964, almost 60 years ago, King gave his $54,000 Nobel Prize award to the movement, even though his family could have used the money. That would be over half a million dollars today.
In a 1959 speech at the University of Iowa, King shared the following:
“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. Even a superficial look at history reveals that no social advance rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”
King Day is cancelled.
No ceremonies. No parades and marches. No awards ceremonies. If you want to authentically honor King, have a Day of Sacrifice. Host teach-ins to help the campus and broader community understand the challenges we face. Organize letter, e-mail, and social media campaigns to pressure politicians who are trying to ban books, end DEI programs, or discriminate against the LGBTQ community. Do press conferences to remind people of the values of Dr. King and your plans to live those values regardless of the consequences.
The days of a sanitized, watered-down Martin Luther King Jr. must come to an end, because the times are too perilous to do what we’ve always done. It is time we commemorate the life of Dr. King by doing what King would do, and that requires the courage to sacrifice.
If you’re not willing to do that, King Day is cancelled.
Dr. Walter M. Kimbrough is the former president of Dillard University and served in leadership positions at several HBCUs.