Honoring Martin Luther King, Jr.
Every year our nation celebrates the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. – the only federal holiday designated as a national day of service to encourage Americans to improve our communities. But in many ways this year’s MLK Day will be very different than in years past.
There will be no MLK Day parade winding its way toward Fair Park due to the pandemic. Perhaps the absence of a big, showy parade and a quieter appreciation of King’s legacy is appropriate after a very difficult year of racial reckoning occurring against a backdrop of COVID-19 and divisive national politics. This is a good time for personal reflection, renewed commitment to fairness and justice, and a hard look at work still to be done. This year SMU will support the City of Dallas’ virtual MLK commemorative events, including the gala that funds student scholarships, and our campus community will honor King by gathering around the flagpole for a Unity Circle on Wednesday, January 27, after students return to campus for classes.
When King spoke at SMU in March 1966, he noted that the question he fielded most often was whether we were making any real progress in race relations. “I would say that we have come a long, long way in our struggle to make justice a reality for all … but we have a long, long way to go before the problem is solved,” he said. That was 55 years ago, and we are still answering this question the same way. Racism still exists in this nation, revealing itself not just in criminal justice issues, but also in the underrepresentation of Black Americans on college campuses like ours, through inequal access to quality elementary education, and in the disparities in those who have lost their lives and livelihoods during the pandemic.
When our students took to social media in June after the murder of George Floyd, their recollections of experiences they faced on campus prompted us to reexamine what it means to be Black at SMU. Student leaders working with faculty and staff came together to form the Black Unity Forum, and the Action Plan they presented us has set forth a path to improve the lives and experiences of our Black students, faculty and staff, delivering upon our mission for everyone on our campus. We have committed to the long-term work that is needed to achieve the goals of the Action Plan, and I encourage you to read more about it here.
What better time than MLK Day to recommit to ourselves to living our University’s core values of excellence, integrity, intellectual freedom, open dialogue, diversity and inclusion every day?
As we move forward together, let us respond to King’s words spoken more than half a century ago from the stage of McFarlin Auditorium: “And so the plea facing us today is to move on that additional distance that we have to go with understanding, with a concern for brotherhood, with the removal of all prejudices, with an understanding that all of God’s children are significant.”
R. Gerald Turner