MLK’s impact today

MLK keynote address connects past with present

Alexandra Cline

What is the lasting legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.? How do his words continue to resonate within communities decades after his death?

Those questions, among many others, were recently discussed by Dr. Michael Eric Dyson in his keynote address that celebrated the accomplishments of the civil rights leader.

On Jan. 17 in Lee Chapel, Dyson, a professor of sociology at Georgetown University, and two Washington and Lee students referenced the progress achieved through King both locally and nationally.

“I am the evidence that things can transform,” Dyson said. “Martin Luther King Jr. was considered the most dangerous [African-American] leader in America. When you live in the United States of America, some things are too painful to remember so we choose to forget.”

The introductory speaker, a representative of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, echoed the concept of remembrance, stating that W&L’s history holds links to slavery and that the university must strive for improvements in racial tolerance.

“My mission [that night] was to strike a nerve,” he said. “The problem on this campus is one rooted in its tradition. I’m challenging the university to take bold strides.”    

One such stride mentioned in the speech includes increasing access to opportunities and expanding the range of educational and career prospects for minorities.

“We’re not taking over Fortune 500 companies or Congress,” Dyson said, in reference to African-Americans. “You can count the number of those people. What we are doing is taking over the prison system. We have that on lock.”

In addition to African-Americans in present society, Dyson called attention to other historically oppressed groups, namely women and members of the LGBT community.

“Women like Rosa Parks were feminists before the term caught on,” he said. “She didn’t just stumble upon history. Her actions were deliberate and we need to start recognizing the contributions by women.”

Despite the improvements in modern society, race-related problems remain prevalent and further steps are necessary to promote equality, according to Dyson.

“Just because we have an African-American president doesn’t mean that other race issues are immediately solved,” Zoe Ottaviani, ’17, who attended the speech, said. “It was interesting that Dyson felt Obama had not addressed race enough, but he would not have had the chance to be president without [King’s] bravery and dedication.”

Aiming to lighten the mood and engage younger audience members, the author and professor also used celebrities like Tupac and Mike Tyson to approach social difficulties.

“I put these words in for the young people,” Dyson said. “It’s okay if you don’t get it.”

Other activities during the week additionally engaged younger crowds, with the children’s birthday party for King drawing families from the community onto campus. Families gathered in Commons to enjoy snacks, face painting, and arts and crafts, all while celebrating King’s legacy.   

“He’s a very inspirational figure in our history,” Kirsten McMichael, ’19, said. “It’s important to reflect upon his accomplishments and the extraordinary headway he made in creating a more inclusive society.”