Students, professors discuss MLK’s ethical response to poverty

Happy Carlock

In 1961, The Washington and Lee Board of Trustees rejected a faculty committee’s request to allow Martin Luther King, Jr. to speak on campus.

But on Jan. 19, King’s voice projected throughout the Hillel multipurpose room as students and faculty members gathered to discuss his speech, “Where do we go from here?”

Howard Pickett, director of the Shepherd Program for the Interdisciplinary Study of Poverty and Human Capability, led the presentation and the group discussion. After listening to a recording of the final 13 minutes of the speech, students and faculty members discussed its relevance to modern society’s obligations to alleviate poverty.

“Today, we’re giving Dr. King the opportunity to have his voice heard on our campus,” Pickett said. “In a sense, just being here and listening to Dr. King accomplishes a lot of what we want to do.”

The speech was originally delivered in 1967 to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a group headed by Dr. King. In his address, King proposes a complete economic restructuring of society to allow for justice and equality. He uses Christianity as a moral basis for his suggestions.

Some students said that, 48 years later, many of King’s suggestions remain logical.

“In our class we’re talking about, ‘Is there room for a religious discussion in discussions of poverty?’ and poverty is such a complex issue,” Andrea Owen ‘16 said. “It’s so hard to find a solution, but here it seems like he’s offered one in religious tradition and radical change.”

King mentions the Biblical story of Jesus and Nicodemus.

“Jesus didn’t get bogged down on the kind of isolated approach of what you shouldn’t do,” King said in the speech.

Even students from a non-Christian religious background found this basis for his moral argument compelling.

“As someone who wasn’t raised the Christian faith, I still identify with this story and think it’s very powerful,” Jordan Cohen ‘16 said.

But other students claimed that not much positive change has taken place since 1967.

“Have we really transformed anything since then with regards to what King is talking about? I don’t know,” said Zach Taylor ‘16.

Most students found some of King’s claims about the need for Christian political leaders controversial.

“He does take it a step farther by saying things like that, where he wants people in our government to have religious beliefs,” said Madison Smith ‘16.

The MLK Day discussion allowed students and faculty members to draw upon King’s wisdom in grappling with modern issues related to poverty. The talk brought about practical suggestions for alleviating poverty, as well as broader ethical principles for doing so.

“It’s not enough to say, ‘Don’t do slavery,’ or ‘Don’t do Jim Crow laws,’”John Juneau ‘18. “The focus needs to be on moving forward and transforming society in a way that incorporates diversity.”