Undergraduate Academic Affairs

January 14, 2016

Remembering King: Students’ voices push arc toward justice – and we should listen

Ed Taylor

Headshot of Vice Provost and Dean Ed Taylor

Undergraduate Academic Affairs’ Vice Provost and Dean Ed TaylorDennis Wise

Some 48 years after his death, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day will undoubtedly bring protests to college campuses around the country, including here at the University of Washington. The students will march peacefully and forcefully. They will ask how long it will take to create a climate that welcomes every student. They will ask how we, as a university, plan to address “economic colonialism“ and how administrators plan to create a true multiracial campus that will serve as prelude to a “multiracial nation where all groups are dependent on each other.”

The marches will be organized and non-violent, moored in the philosophy that guided King. Yet these students do not call upon King’s “I Have a Dream” speech or “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” They are more likely to invoke King’s speech delivered on March 25, 1965, in Montgomery, Alabama, at the culmination of the march from Selma to Montgomery.

Three civil rights activists had been killed and many other marchers had been beaten at the Edmund Pettus Bridge when Dr. King gave his speech on the steps of the state Capitol in Montgomery, a city known as the Cradle of the Confederacy.

Dr. King praised the white clergy and the common people of various faiths who had traveled to Selma with African-American protesters. He declared that segregation was “on its deathbed” and the movement must now be prepared to “march on poverty.” Dr. King stated that all the world knew that “we are standing before the forces of power in the state of Alabama,” saying, “We ain’t going to let nobody turn us around … I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because ‘truth crushed to earth will rise again.’ How long? Not long, because ‘no lie can live forever,’… How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

There was faith and confidence in King’s voice. The Selma campaign would spark the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Today’s protesters will march peacefully yet impatiently with the understanding that the arc bends faster when it is pushed. They stand face to face with faculty and administrators like me. Many convey personal stories about their experiences on campus emblematic of a world that is deeply connected, interdependent and disconcerting. One UW student told me that she “couldn’t get away from the image last year of Eric Garner being killed over and over again on social media.” She tried to “unfriend” those who posted videos on Facebook; she stopped watching television and stopped reading the headlines, gave up checking Twitter, and still she couldn’t avoid the exposé of his death and the repeated sound of his last breath. She said: “There is nowhere to hide. There is nothing left for me to do but to take action.”

College students are calling on campus leaders to listen and then to act. Their concerns include the forms of bias and racism they encounter on their campuses every day and how we might educate ourselves to treat each other with more care and respect. They include the need to hire, admit and retain more faculty and students of color. Their concerns are about the continuing inequality for many groups but specifically African-Americans in the United States. They will ask whether we heard the voice of Samaria Rice, the mother of Tamir Rice following the non-indictment of the Ohio police officer who fatally shot her son: “I have a dead child … I feel like the breath has been taken out of my body once again.”

The sounds and images that loop through our social media haunt them. The same social media that haunts them inspires their sense of solidarity with fellow students and citizens across the country.

My colleagues and I will listen and then act. We will act not only because students are marching but because “the time is always right to do what is right.” We will assure our students that they will not need to wait long; that we will work in solidarity with them and with students at campuses across the country; that we share the vision of an arc that bends toward justice in our city, state and nation.

We will act on UW President Ana Mari Cauce’s directive to create a more just and democratic University of Washington through our Race and Equity Initiative. We have the chance to shape the intelligence, character and heart of the beloved community, which, for King, was a realistic, achievable goal — and it still is.