In her essay “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past,” historian Jacquelyn Dowd Hall noted that we have made the mistake of freezing Martin Luther King Jr. in time, forever standing in our memory on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, dreaming of a day when his “four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Reconvening each January to repeat these words and measure progress toward the dream’s fulfillment is laudable, but it is not enough. I believe that today’s WCU students are highly capable of ending poverty, restoring the middle class, reviving civic pride and participation, and putting racism and sexism on a permanent path to extinction in the 21st century – their century.
We forget that King alienated much of the country, right up to his death, by speaking directly to the systemic inequities of wealth and opportunity in our power structure. Not only whites, but many African-Americans were angry at King for what they perceived to be his diversions from more-pressing needs of civil rights, integration and voter protections. Moreover, President Lyndon B. Johnson and many whites asked, following passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act, “What more can he ask of us now?”
King refused to congratulate himself on these legislative successes, his “I Have a Dream Speech,” or his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. He knew that these marked only the beginning, not the end, of a painfully long journey to make America what it has claimed to be since 1776 – an equal-opportunity nation. If it took until 1971 for all citizens over age 18 to vote, what other aspects of citizenship were similarly delayed? Economic citizenship? Social citizenship? Intellectual citizenship? Almost 50 years since King’s death, we are only slightly past halfway in our progress through the wilderness, en route to the “Promised Land” King envisaged on his last day on earth.
Evidence in North Carolina. In 2013, 18 percent of North Carolinians –about 1.7 million people – lived in poverty. This statistic rises to 41 percent of North Carolina’s children of color. We ranked fifth in the nation overall for hunger, with Greensboro being the second hungriest city and Asheville the ninth. Nine-thousand homeless military veterans live among us, and at least 5,000 homeless children currently enroll in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district. In Durham, where I live, at least 23,000 children live in what is called “extreme poverty,” with three-quarters of the city’s elementary school kids on free or reduced-price lunches. These trends do not bode well for social cohesion, and, left unchecked, will have unpleasant consequences for us all.
That is where our students, and therefore, our future, factor in. I see four ways that WCU students can change the social justice calculus of the 21st century:
• Set the highest records of eligible voter turnout in American history. This goal is most appropriate, especially for the vast majority of us today who could not have voted for George Washington in 1789, when we consider all the blood, lives and deferred dreams that were sacrificed for the right to vote. Even with our busy lives, distracted priorities and short attention spans, what legitimate excuse can we really have not to exercise this precious civic fundamental right?
• Invest ourselves in a liberal arts education and a thoughtful examination of American history. Whatever our professional discipline, there is no substitute for an education that broadens our minds, acclimates us to critical thinking and thoughtful consideration of opposing views, and orients us in our shared past. History does not provide “answers” to contemporary problems, but it does offer context and clarifying questions as to what is most important about America in a global age. King and all great American leaders have had a strong sense of history – indeed, of the human spirit. Without broad cultural exposure, we will not have the necessary wisdom and intellectual capital to rise to historic occasions in our own lives.
• Be the national leader in the struggle against sexual assault on U.S. college campuses. King did not live long enough to witness the emerging women’s rights and gender equalization dialogue of the 1970s, but had he lived longer, I believe he would have joined in the battle for political and social equality between the sexes. Reportedly, one-fourth of all women experience some kind of sexual assault before college graduation; this number is too high. Sexual assault has absolutely no place at WCU. It is the least we can do for our daughters, granddaughters, sisters, nieces, friends and significant others.
• Transcend political ideology to identify innovative solutions to poverty in our state. As an undergraduate and graduate student, I relished attending debates between the College Democrats and College Republicans. I encourage WCU students to engage in public forums at which the two political clubs seek terms of “agreement and cooperation,” especially on the issue of poverty. This will likely be the greatest civil rights issue of our time, and it will require the attention of brave, brilliant, talented and altruistic leaders in communities across North Carolina – leaders like the ones we see at WCU every day. If there was ever a need for a “greatest generation” on our nation’s domestic front, the present widening gap between rich and poor furnishes a historic opportunity.
Each time I visit our alma mater and engage with students, I am inspired by their passion, intellect, earnestness and genuine desire to achieve something larger than their individual ambitions. Reconnecting with WCU and the youngest Catamount generation is something that all of us who have been away from Cullowhee for some time should do to revive our spirits and keep alive our optimism. In them, and in their future, Dr. Martin Luther King’s fondest hopes thrive.
Brandon A. Robinson ’05 MA ’10, vice chair of WCU’s Board of Visitors, is an attorney currently practicing law in Durham. He shared these thoughts as part of his keynote address at WCU’s annual Martin Luther King Celebration Week last January.