In 1961, college student and budding journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault, along with Hamilton Holmes, became the first African Americans to enroll in the University of Georgia, that state’s flagship university. Despite being a standout graduate of her Atlanta high school, Hunter-Gault’s path to UGA was littered with barriers and obstacles. But she and Holmes persisted in their fight to enroll at UGA, finally winning the right to transfer there only after taking the university to court.
Hunter-Gault later wrote about a chance meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the streets of Atlanta around that time. “As I started to introduce myself — before I could get past my name — he reached for my hand, energetically shaking it, while telling me he was proud to meet me. ‘You are doing such a magnificent job down there,’ he said, a reference to my enrollment at the all-white University of Georgia…King told me that education was the key to our freedom, and then he generously thanked me again and wished me success.”
To his contemporaries and the generations since, Dr. King has been an enduring icon and inspiration. As an institution of higher education, we take special inspiration from his belief in the power of education to effect societal transformation toward equity and justice. This ideal informs our public mission to expand access to education, create knowledge and cultivate change for the public good in our communities near and far. To reach this ideal, we know that we must commit to anti-racist practices and making systemic changes that tear down the barriers to the full participation and empowerment of our BIPOC students, faculty, staff and community members. This work happens at every level of the University, and I am deeply proud of the commitment and good work being undertaken by so many of our students, faculty and staff, across every college, school, campus, hospital and clinic, to recognize the impact of persistent inequity and to remedy it.
This coming Monday, Jan. 16, the UW will observe the annual Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. Your hard work throughout the year helps build the diverse, equitable and welcoming community and world that we seek. On this holiday, I hope you will take time to reflect on the inspiring history and people, like Hunter-Gault, whose activism and efforts you are building on, and that you’ll consider how you can continue to extend their legacy at the UW and in your community. You’ll find resources, reading lists and local events, including UW Tacoma’s annual Unity Breakfast and South Sound community event, along with other opportunities to take part in public service.
I am proud of the extraordinary work of our community to realize Dr. King’s dream, while acknowledging the urgent need for more progress in the face of threats — both ongoing and emerging – to equity and access. I believe in our community’s strength, dedication and ability to move us forward, and I look forward to continuing this vital work together.