“… I am convinced that men hate each other because they fear each other. They fear each other because they don’t know each other, and they don’t know each other because they don’t communicate with each other, and they don’t communicate with each other because they are separated from each other. And God grant that something will happen to open channels of communication…”
In Nashville, I have been attending events over the past few days to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and legacy. It feels particularly special to celebrate this holiday here in Nashville, given that MLK confessed to feeling inspired by the city’s methods of nonviolent protest during the civil rights movement. During a trip to Nashville in 1960, MLK spoke at Fisk University, whose students propelled the city’s lunch counter sit-ins in the following decade. As a result of those protests, Nashville eventually became the first Southern city to desegregate lunch counters. (This year marks the 60th anniversary of those Nashville sit-ins.) So it seems that MLK both inspired and was inspired by Nashville’s social justice scene.
Last Friday, Fisk University celebrated MLK’s life with a campus-wide convocation that called upon the university’s history of social activism. The invited speaker, State Representative Harold Love Jr., insisted on the need for continued action against injustices in this time of paradoxical progress and stagnation, a sentiment that was echoed by students’ responses to the speech. While the representative delivered the core message, undergraduate students were quite heavily involved in the rest of convocation: they delivered vocal performances, introductory remarks, responses, and led the audience in song. As a faculty member in the audience, it struck me that the university was preparing students to assume the action and leadership they observed in the civil rights leader. As one of the students said during her address to the crowd that day, the students sitting in the university chapel pews are themselves the blossoms of MLK’s labor, the flowers offered in tribute to his life. The students embodied the legacies of both MLK and the university.
At Vanderbilt’s MLK commemoration event, it emerged that one form of “action” that can be taken is that of sharing one’s own story. (While Vanderbilt held a less admirable role during the civil rights movement, the university has created partnerships and foundations in order to support its mission to foster education for all regardless of race, sex, or religion.) Last night, Dean Emilie Townes cited the epigraph above from Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech delivered at Cornell College in 1962 in order to ponder how we are opening lines of communication today. At the series keynote panel with Janelle Monáe (songwriter, producer, actress, and more) and Yusef Salaam (one of the Exonerated Five), the two invited guests spoke with moderator Emilie Townes about the power of storytelling to communicate to broader audiences. Monáe insisted on the power of being vulnerable and transparent in order to foster empathy, connection, and love through sharing one’s story. Salaam empowered listeners to understand that we are all “born on purpose and with a purpose.” With this conviction, Salaam compelled the audience to live a full life by recognizing one’s worth in order to go forward, pursue one’s passions, and give to the world whatever their gift may be. Salaam continued that the “best of our story is yet to be told,” and it is up to us to tell it.
Both institutions insisted on celebrating the life of Martin Luther King Jr. by taking action in order to make the world a more just place, whether that be through sharing one’s own story through the media of film or fiction or through direct participation in governmental decision-making bodies.
After these events, as an instructor, I felt re-inspired to empower students to tell their stories, to hone the art of argumentation, and to leave space for students to express themselves both critically and creatively in the classroom. I also felt re-energized to engage in others’ stories through literary and language study in order to engage with multiple points of view and generate more empathy. These are certainly impulses that I have felt in the past, but that were strengthened during these commemorations of a national leader who valued communication and connection that surpassed superficial differences that create false hierarchies in order to foster change.
However you decide to celebrate MLK’s unique legacy, I hope you get the chance to reflect on your purpose and passion while considering the singular impact this leader had on American history and how we–and our students–can further that impact.