John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

MLK Day: What Does This Evoke For You?

January 19, 2010John N. GardnerMLK Day0

I hope you were asking that of your students, and colleagues, on the 18th.

For me, it evokes the memory of actually hearing that speech, live, as it was delivered. I was driving my car on the Garden State Parkway in New Jersey, work commuting, in association with summer college job as a steelworker in a factory that made beer cans, summer of 1963. And when I heard Dr. King’s voice ring out the spirit moved me off the highway and to the shoulder. I had to stop and just listen. I could not do that and drive. It was unforgettable. If you haven’t ever played the speech back for your students, you should.

The day evokes for me his murder, on a Thursday, in April, 1968. I taught a class the next night, a Friday night, at a regional campus of the University of South Carolina and that particular night I set aside what I had planned to do on the syllabus, and instead performed a series of readings from Dr. King’s works and discussed these with the students. You could have heard a pin drop. That was also the same semester that the very first Black student came to that campus. He was all alone—the only one. His name was “Mr. Small”; he was actually, literally, small in stature, but huge in courage and in significance. A week later my dean called me in and told me that a number of my students had complained to him about my readings from those works. But other students had the opposite reaction. There often is no powerful learning without taking some risks. And this is exactly what academic freedom is for.

For many years, my state resisted declaring this as a holiday. I so wanted to join the union.

Now I live in a small North Carolina town which has a MLK vigil, a candlelight procession, a special celebratory ceremony and presentation.

We need to remind our students, and our colleagues, that one person, one leader, can and does make a difference. And that the vision this leader called for is not yet fulfilled. And that’s the most important reason we are in this student success work.

-John N. Gardner

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