John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

My Hero: What Martin Luther King Meant to Me. Do Your Students Have Heroes?

January 21, 2013John N. GardnerInsights0

John N. Gardner

I write this on the day before we celebrate in 2013 the meaning of the life and contributions of Martin Luther King.

When I was teaching undergraduates on a regular, full-time basis, particularly back in the 60’s and 70’s, I always found a way to ask them at some point in the term to think about whether or not they had any heroes. I knew that I certainly did and how important they were to me for my own aspirational goal formation and benchmarking of my own values.

When I would do this exercise with my students, of course, we needed to develop some operational definition of what does the concept of “hero”, and now “shero” mean, more broadly and especially to each student? What is the difference between their every day life heroes vs one or more that they might have at a national or global level? I always found it easiest for the students to identify heroes that were closest to them in terms of their actually being able to interact with their chosen figure. The exercise became much more difficult the further away from their immediate context they looked.

After the failure of the Vietnam War, Watergate and to fast forward into the current era of mean spirited politics and a divided nation, this exercise became much more difficult for my students. How sad. But I could understand.

I also needed to discuss with them what could they do with the concept of personal hero once they had identified such. And, as an appropriately self disclosing faculty member, I would usually share with them some of my heroes and the impact they had had on me. Unlike most of them, it was far easier for me to identify heroes at the national and international level. But then I had come of age in a different time.

And, without question, one of my heroes had been and still is Martin Luther King. I was an undergraduate from 1961-65 and thanks to my professors at Marietta College, who would occasionally reference him, he was already on my screen. And because one of my professors had got me into the habit of reading the daily New York Times, which did follow Dr. King, I kept up with him that way. In that period I did not have my own television. College students did not have TV’s in their “dormitory” rooms.

Dr. King was murdered in April of 1968. During that period—actually semester, I was on active duty in the United States Air Force, stationed at Shaw AFB, South Carolina, where I was a psychiatric social worker. Thanks to a direct order from my squadron commander directing me to perform “community service”, I had become the year before an adjunct, part-time, college instructor, teaching at an open admissions, two-year, public campus, which was located about 60 miles north of my base. My class, Introduction to Sociology, was offered on a Friday night, from 7.00-10.00! I had about 80 students in the class that term, including one, just one African American student. And he was the first African American student ever to have been admitted to that campus. He sat in the very back row of my class, keeping his head down, literally, but I knew he was paying rapt attention. I admired him so much. He had far greater courage than I have ever mustered.

The term I was teaching that class, Dr. King was murdered on a Thursday, the day before my class. I hastily went to the Base Library where they did have multiple volumes of Dr. King’s writings. I pulled about four and that evening culled them for a series of readings I had decided I would present in my next evening’s class. And that’s what I did. In class, I suspended the regular order of business and told the students we were going to spend that evening reflecting on the life and contributions of Martin Luther King. And I gave a number of readings. The students were stunned. It was one of my most difficult classes ever to elicit discussion. And it wasn’t that they were stunned that Dr. King had been murdered. It was that I was talking about him in such a manner and dedicating a whole class to this consideration.

I always tried to arrive at least 45-60 minutes before class for “office hours.” My class was the only one offered on the campus of Friday nights (because I was the only person they could get to teach this course and that was the only night of the week I was willing to make the drive to the campus). So when I arrived for class the next week after I had devoted my previous class to the topic of Martin Luther King, the CEO of the campus, the Dean, had put a note in my mailbox asking him to come by his office to talk to him. And, of course, I did so.

What the Dean had to tell me was that a delegation of my students had come by to see him and to “protest” what I had done in my previous week’s class, namely, devoting my entire class period to the subject of the slain civil rights leader. To remind my reader, I was a part-time, adjunct instructor, the lowest rung of the higher ed instructional ladder (I remembered the difference when at the end of my university career I was promoted to the rank of Distinguished Professor!). My Dean gave me a stern homily about how I had transgressed the local norms and had presented myself in the students’ words “as a ni***r lover.” I had never thought of myself that way before but in this context, I had to acknowledge the accuracy of my students’ feedback: by their cultural definition of that concept in that time of our history, that’s exactly what I was. I was quick enough on my mental feet to make the connections intellectually between what I had done that night in class and the explicit goals of my syllabus for Sociology 101, and hence to argue that this was clearly a matter of academic freedom. My Dean was not persuaded and went on to inform me that he had also had complaints from some of my students on my views about the Vietnam War—even though all my students knew I was on active duty in the military, and had volunteered for such patriotic service. Anyway, my dean and I agreed not to agree. But this whole conversation really forced home for me just how significant Martin Luther King was for me. And that was 1968. He was to me a hero and I am glad I had laid out the intellectual rationale for my students of why I held him in such esteem.

And now, well, 1968 and his murder, are 45 years behind us. I am totally confident that if I were teaching this coming Friday night on that same campus and gave the same presentation to my students, that they would not visit the campus CEO with complaints. I am confident the idea of doing so wouldn’t even occur to them, because they would not be offended. I am confident that the campus CEO would never call in a faculty member to interfere with such speech and class content. We have come a long way.

This was one of the most powerful, formative, experiences I had in my earliest period as a college professor. It profoundly affected me. In 1983, fifteen years after this incident, I was appointed Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs for this particular campus and four other public, regional, two-year campuses in South Carolina. In that capacity, for the next thirteen years, I would come to the annual May Commencement. And there in the audience there would be not one Black student and family members, but hundreds. I was so moved each time. I knew they were all there because of the courage of that one first Black student who had come, had been in my class, whose family had supported him, and for Martin Luther King, who had given his life so that millions of similar students would have exactly that opportunity.

I write often about aspects of our country that concern me and that I want to see our higher education system address. But when I reflect on MLK day, what his life meant, what he accomplished, how this has connected to my life and work, I happily admit that we have come a long way baby.

But we still need to be asking our students to reflect on their heroes and how they could positively influence their lives. Those influences certainly live on for me, as this blog posting is meant to testify.

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