By Reginald Stuart
Millions of parents, teachers and students across the country of all ages took a break from their busy routines last week to think about and honor the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who was assassinated April 4 in Memphis by a sniper, abruptly ending his historic crusade for equal justice and civility for all people, regardless of race, economic status, religion, age and other distinctions.
On many college and high school campuses, dialogues were held to openly talk about where America stands today, 50 years after Dr. King’s death when it comes to actively achieving Dr. King’s goals.
During a panel discussion at Nashville’s Fisk University, a hub of civil rights thinking and activities during Dr. King’s era, representatives of institutions from around the city addressed one pointed question: “Is the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. alive on your campus?”
In a variety of ways, the answer was yes, the diverse group said, offering numerous examples of how their work was an extension of what Dr. King was seeking, how much work is left to be done and people are doing it.
From the annual Oral Health Day where the dental school at Meharry Medical College gives free dental care to some 600 people in need of dental care, to programs at American Baptist College (ABC), Vanderbilt University and Tennessee State University, all voiced example they felt would signal Dr. King and the public his efforts have not been forgotten and were not in vain.
“We want to educate every student with a social lense” said Dr. Forrrest Elliot Harris Sr.,ABC president. “We have to avoid the plagiarism of Dr. King’s legacy,” Harris said. “Much needs to be done.”
Tanya Torres, the president of the Student Government Association at Fisk, echoed fellow student presidents and Generation X students across the country in reassuring today’s thinkers and doers the hopes, aspirations and goals of Dr. King were indeed alive.
In the courageous tone of Nashville civil rights activists Diane Nash, John Lewis,Pauline Knight, Ernest Patton and others of the 1960, and the mind set of poet and Fisk alum Nikki Giovanni, Torres minced no words and made clear young people understood the work ahead:
“It is our duty to fight for our freedom,” Torres told the audience gathered at Fisk Chapel. “It is our duty to win. We must love and protest each other,” she said. “We have nothing to lose but our chains.
“…You see more than a thousand streets across the world bear Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s name. In these streets people from all walks of life are able to benefit from the sacrifice of a man who fought against violence and whose life by violence was destroyed.
“I’ve been in the streets of Atlanta, Georgia. I’ve visited his home and paid my respects at his tomb. While there, I didn’t give much reflection to who killed Dr. King but what killed him.
“When people from different social-ethnic-economic backgrounds are able to congregate, to establish the expectations of what justice should look like, and voice their beliefs through the act of voting, then you have a very dangerous weapon. The truth is, the power behind a united front is what lead to the death of Dr. King. America, at the time of the civil rights era, was not prepared for the America we continue to demand for today. When we imagine the civil right era, we sometimes forget that we are by no means, far removed from that time period. The years have changed, but the headlines have not.
“Today, the struggle continues and we’re still fighting to make our U.S. Constitution inclusive to all citizens,” said Torres, a senior at Fisk from Houston, Texas. “We’re still fighting so police departments that brutalize communities of color are held to the basic standards and principles of constitutional policing. We’re still fighting for better public schools for our children and strict gun control laws. We’re still fighting for women, men and the LGBTQ community who experience different forms of sexual assault. We’re still fighting so immigrants will no longer be targeted and excluded from a country that was built on the backs of immigrant slaves. We’re still fighting…we’re still fighting…and we will continue to fight until the discriminatory voter ID laws of Tennessee stop excluding college students, people of color, the elderly and the disabled.
“Today is a reminder that Dr. King’s work remains unfinished and Jim Crow lives to see racial distinctions continue to shape our politics, our neighborhoods and our self sense,” Torres said. “Although we’ve made progress in crossing racial lines too find our common ground on things that once divided up, we must continue to have conversations that explore how we can build an inclusive and beloved community,” who noted she had the honor of delivering her comments in the same chapel and from the same stage Dr. King used.
“HBCU’s (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) are inextricable like to a history of enslavement and reconstruction, ad it is at an HBCU that we not only salute our fallen leader, we expand on his legacy…, said Torres. “It is our duty to fight for our freedom,” she said. “It is our duty to win. We must love and protect each other, because we have nothing to lose but our chains.”