John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Thinking of Martin Luther King 2012

January 13, 2012John N. GardnerInsights0

John N. Gardner

I don’t really need an MLK Day to make me think of Dr. King. I think of him frequently for the impact he had on my own consciousness and life. I think of him in the 2012 national presidential election cycle especially in terms of the unfinished civil rights movement, and the fact that there surely would be no President Barack Obama were it not for the ultimate sacrifice of Martin Luther King.

In the summer of 1963, when King delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” speech on the Washington Mall, I had just finished my sophomore year in college. I didn’t know that a few months later my Presidential hero, John Kennedy, was going to be murdered. That August though, I had a summer job in Hillside, New Jersey, as a steelworker, laboring in a factory making millions of beer cans, and not a drop to drink — real torture for a red-blooded American college kid like me. On the day he made that speech, I was driving on the Garden State Parkway. I had my car radio on, and I listened to the news coverage of the demonstration and speech. As he started to speak, I knew that I was never going to hear another live speech like this again. I just couldn’t believe my ears. His words and spirit touched me like no speaker I had ever heard. I rapidly became enthralled and so for my own safety I pulled over to the shoulder, shut my engine off, and took in the speech in wonderment. I hadn’t yet begun to conceptualize that I would ever earn my own living as a public speaker, and even if I had, I would not have imagined ever being able to speak like that. And, of course, I can’t. However, he inspires me to this day.

Just five relatively short years later, with the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts adopted, and the Civil Rights movement in full swing, along with the war in Vietnam, I had been drafted and then volunteered to go on active duty. I was stationed at a US Air Force base in South Carolina (as a psychiatric social worker) in April of 196\8 when Dr. King was murdered. I was scheduled to teach a class in Sociology 101 the next night in my capacity as an adjunct instructor at USC Lancaster, and I just couldn’t imagine sticking with my original game plan for that class. So, I went to the base library and checked out several of Dr. King’s works, and used the following class for an extended eulogy and exploration of his life and its significance. My eulogy consisted largely of readings I did for the students who sat there looking –some of them—shocked, others embarrassed and avoiding eye contact with me. The next week when I returned to teach that class the campus Dean met me before class to inform me that a “delegation” of students had come to see him to complain about my previous class describing me as a “N…… Lover.” I couldn’t and didn’t deny it.

Fast forward, here I am, 44 years later. As I look at my own continuing work to help colleges and universities improve first-year and transfer student success, more than anything else, I see my work as part of the continuing, unfinished, civil rights movement. This has been powerfully confirmed for me in the past few months as more and more attention has been called, rightfully so, to the institutionalization of inequality in the US. Now, once again, the whole country is talking about inequality, the 99% vs. the 1%, the myth of American upward social mobility, compounded by our myth that we are a classless society with equal opportunity for all.

I know my work was needed when I was just one, lone, classroom adjunct college instructor in a small, rural, southern, textile mill town. I am far from that now in terms of my own stature but my work is needed just as much given what we know to be the powerful inequities that remain in our society that can only be corrected by education as the primary means of upward social mobility.

There are so many examples of one person making a difference. Dr. King is about as good an example as I can think of. He inspired me then. He inspires me now 

As an exercise for any of my readers who work with college students, ask them who inspires them, and think long and hard about what they tell you. This year, on the anniversary of Dr. King’s murder, would be a great time for such a discussion.

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