Today marks the 49th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee. It is a good time to reflect on the depth of his life and how academics can honor his sacrifice. TheGrio has listed three ways scholars can honor Dr. King’s life below:
Work for a cause that is greater than your career.
Everyone cares about the future direction of their career and wants to be able to make a living for themselves and their families. This sentiment shouldn’t be your only driving force. Connect to a cause that is greater than yourself. Find something that you are willing to sacrifice for that will positively impact communities and systems.
In addition to setting a standard of excellence with our behavior; we must also demand excellence and justice in the structural and policy realm. Dr. King gave up a potential career of comfort and convenience to change the laws of the land and help to transform America. After receiving his Ph.D. in 1955, he could have only worried about his personal career growth in the world of academia or the ministry. Instead, he decided to take his talents to Montgomery, Alabama, where he would commit himself to a cause that was greater than himself.
Dr. King certainly felt fear. In his last speech in Memphis, he lamented that “like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will.” King, like all of us, had doubts and fears, but he didn’t let that paralyze him. He didn’t let it scare him into inaction or passivity. He and many others in the civil rights movement put their jobs and lives on the line. Academics can honor their sacrifice by being courageous.
A great deal of the fear that people feel is self-imposed. They put themselves in cages of trepidation based on what might happen. It must be acknowledged that the majority of scholars of color have been denied intergenerational wealth transfers which makes them much more economically insecure than their counterparts. This, however, is not an excuse for perpetual inaction on pivotal issues. To whom much is given in reference to knowledge, skills, and ability; much is required.
It doesn’t mean that you should walk into every meeting screaming “no justice, no peace,” but it does mean that you should be applying an equity and access lens to every situation and asking if there is more that can be done.
Another part of being courageous is not always taking the path of least resistance. Dr. King often intentionally chose locations where he would find the most resistance in order to dramatize a particular problem. He intentionally made himself uncomfortable. He went into Birmingham, Selma, Chicago, Memphis, and countless other cities to bring attention to important issues. Academics can help put issues on the agenda with their scholarship and service.
King also wasn’t afraid to be controversial. His stance against the Vietnam War caused even some of his closest allies in the civil rights movement to turn against him. During King’s final year of life, the heads of the NAACP and National Urban League would denounce him as well as other leading black figures of the time like Congressman Adam Clayton Powell.
Scholars should follow King’s lead and venture into some uncharted waters. Put yourself in fearful situations sometimes. It can be an incredible tool for growth. Don’t be a Chief Diversity Officer who is afraid to fight for diversity, or a Dean of Equity who consistently stays silent about inequity. It is especially inexcusable for tenured faculty members to be afraid to speak out. Fear has no place in your success equation.
This is a time for a new level of engagement in both theory and action. Scholars must re-examine theories to gauge their level of relevance to present conditions. We should not settle for conventional solutions to different issues, but we should delve deeper into more complex alternatives. The gap between theory and practice will widen if theories aren’t reformulated to fit the reality of what is going on.
This is not just a time for analysis, though analysis is important. At some point, the life of the mind needs to connect with the action of the hands and feet. Most scholars essentially write to themselves in academic journals that are not even accessible to the general public. This work is valuable and very highly prized in the academy but may end up being of little use if it is not eventually acted upon.
Academics must find a way to use their scholarship to make the world a better place. Use your skills to change your institutions. Be an agent of institutional transformation. Put your theory into action. Dr. King didn’t study Mahatma Ghandi’s non-violent tactics just to be studying it. He studied it with the intent of putting it into action. We can honor Dr. King on the 49th anniversary of his death by using our expertise and academic institutions to reach into the community and build coalitions to create opportunity.
Dr. Marcus Bright is a political commentator and the Executive Director of Education for a Better America. He also serves an Adjunct Professor of Public Administration and Political Science at Lynn University.