Martin Luther King Jr. Day Reflection from Provost White

January 18, 2021

Dear colleagues,

I don’t typically offer annual comments about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. because there are so many others who do so, and do it eloquently. These careful thinkers help me to appreciate how limited we are in our understanding of the breadth of Dr. King’s vision and our appreciation for how much his thinking and strategies evolved throughout his short life. I am gratified by the many folks who help us see him in toto, beyond his “I Have a Dream” speech and even his principles of nonviolence (as important as they were). This year, in light of the acts of violence at the U.S. Capitol, the deep tears in our national social fabric, and the emerging false equivalence between social justice labor and white supremacist violence, I decided to dive in and send this to you. I felt even more inspired since just a day ago a colleague of ours shared a quote from a speech delivered by Dr. King that I especially love. This speech, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” is one I mentioned in an email to you all in 2018. This insightful and still-relevant speech was delivered by Dr. King on March 31, 1968–just days before he was assassinated on April 4, 1968 at the age of 39.

Here is what I said:

“One of my favorite speeches by Dr. King is one he delivered and refined many times, including as his final Sunday sermon in the National Cathedral in Washington. Here is one excerpt that caught my attention:

The hour has come for everybody, for all institutions of the public sector and the private sector to work to get rid of racism. And now if we are to do it we must honestly admit certain things and get rid of certain myths that have constantly been disseminated all over our nation….One is the myth of time. It is the notion that only time can solve the problem of racial injustice. And there are those who often sincerely say to the Negro and his allies in the white community, ‘Why don’t you slow up? Stop pushing things so fast. Only time can solve the problem. And if you will just be nice and patient and continue to pray, in a hundred or two hundred years the problem will work itself out.’ There is an answer to that myth. It is that time is neutral. It can be used either constructively or destructively. And I am sorry to say this morning that I am absolutely convinced that the forces of ill will in our nation, the extreme rightists of our nation—the people on the wrong side—have used time much more effectively than the forces of goodwill. And it may well be that we will have to repent in this generation. Not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, ‘Wait on time.’ Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals….

As educators, as scholars, artists, and creators of ideas we have the opportunity to equip our students with the capacity to understand why inclusiveness and civility matter, remain curious about and unafraid of the unfamiliar, contribute to the resolution of difficult and socially relevant issues, and be courageous and steadfast in their commitments even in the most trying times. I hope that those of you who see Wheaton as a place primed to all of this will continue working with me to realize that vision.”

Since that email, we have embraced the opportunity to establish these principles even more deeply in our daily work. DEAL (Diversity, Equity and Access Leadership) has inspired us by articulating our shared goals in our diversity mission and vision statement. With the 10 action steps toward racial justice, they help us remain accountable to one another. Our CCTL co-chairs regularly model what it means to do work grounded in equity as they develop justice-minded pedagogy; they built this invaluable resource to support us as we strive to become antiracist educators. Of course, Compass itself is a reflection of Wheaton faculty’s decades-long commitment to incorporating inclusive practices into our curriculum; in addition, STEM faculty are in the midst of a five-year long program, Wheaton Inclusive STEM Excellence (WISE) that reflects this long commitment. This past summer WISE faculty leadership organized a public health and social justice series and last fall, faculty from many different disciplines developed and co-taught a course on race and racism; around 100 of our students enrolled. Also in the fall, many of you participated in the #ScholarStrike, and in true Wheaton spirit you shared ideas and strategies with one another.

Much of what I’ve identified here is focused on racial justice. I realize that our work–your work–extends well beyond this. I also realize that the examples I shared barely touch the surface of what you continue to do. I have had innumerable conversations with some of you over the years. We have talked about our challenges and frustrations with this work, we have shared materials with one another and offered words of encouragement. All of this has driven a project I’m working on with Wallace Library, a repository for the many kinds of resources you have uncovered and shared with each other. Our goal is to launch this space sometime this semester.

In that spirit of reflection and discernment, I wanted to recommend some sources that have been of great assistance to me as I continue on the journey to become as fully justice and equity driven in my work as I can. If you’ll indulge me, this is a bit of a nepotistic-adjacent gesture since all three people are friends of mine. The poet Crystal Williams is Boston University’s inaugural Vice President and Associate Provost for Community & Inclusion. She has an incredible blog on Substack, “Ideas in Progress,” where she muses on a variety of topics related to diversity and equity. Two wonderful examples are her essays on diversity committees and on race, trauma and spectacle. Take a moment to listen to the work of the Resistance Revival Chorus, whose Musical Director, Abena Koomson-Davis, was a visiting artist for two days on campus in 2018. Her indelible reading of Langston Hughes’ Let America Be America Again, part of Poets in Unexpected Places, is worth your time. Khalilah Brown-Dean, Quinnipiac professor of Political Science and Senior Director for Inclusive Excellence (she was the keynote at our 2020 Martin Luther King Legacy Celebration) hosted a thought-provoking discussion on voting rights and now hosts a weekly program on CT Public Radio called Disrupted.

Hopefully these recommendations complement your personal collection of materials and will serve to challenge, inspire and move you. This work we do, I believe, isn’t just so we can be better educators and mentors. I also see it also necessary for us as individuals, since as Dr. King observes, “We are all tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.”

With appreciation,

Renée T. White, Provost