Published April 4, 2018
Exactly 50 years ago today, prominent civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed.
His death jolted the nation into a mixed state of anger and mourning. A wave of riots spread across more than 100 cities, from Memphis to Buffalo. But in other places, including at UB, some people engaged in a somber reflection on the life of King, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate known for his use of non-violent protest.
In a letter to the campus community (pictured below right), Martin Meyerson, UB’s 10th president, closed the university on the day of King’s funeral and pledged an increased focus from UB toward ending economic inequality by creating opportunities through education.
“…The University for many people may provide the most meaningful place for students, faculty, staff and members of the community to come together on this occasion to share their sorrow, their fears and their hopes,” Meyerson wrote. “But this must not be a time for retrospection alone. This must be a time for renewed dedication and commitment.”
He continued: “Martin Luther King in his actions, and symbolically through his death, has shown that the problems of the poor, regardless of skin color, although so many who are poor are black, must pervade the hearts and minds of all Americans.
“As a University community, there are some things we can do to remedy the problem of the poor, and of the negro poor in particular, and we must do them … To this end I shall use what moral influence I have to encourage the teachers, the students and the staff of our University community to commit a few hours of themselves each week to give what we have the most of — the knowledge and education which has been the traditional door to opportunity in the American scene.”
UB’s dedication to inclusion and commitment toward community development has continued during the decades since King’s death.
Through Cora P. Maloney College, the university is home to several programs focused on recruiting and retaining talented and diverse students from underrepresented backgrounds, including the Daniel Acker Scholars Program, the Arthur O. Eve Educational Opportunity Program and the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program.
The Office of Inclusive Excellence hosts Difficult Conversations, or DIFCON, a series of events that allows the campus community to address critical issues from different viewpoints, much as King did when he was invited by the university to speak at Kleinhans Music Hall in 1967.
And on May 3-4, the university will hold its first Inclusive Excellence Summit, a conference aimed at exploring new ways to increase diversity, equity and inclusion at UB.
“Institutions are shaped by their history, and Dr. Meyerson’s letter reminds us that our university’s commitment to inclusion and social justice runs deep,” says Despina Stratigakos, interim vice provost for inclusive excellence.
“UB’s inaugural Inclusive Excellence Summit will explore what it means to live that commitment 50 years later. I encourage all to come and share their thoughts on our university community, what inclusion means to us, and how we will continue to engage with the world around us.”
Despite the advancements made in civil rights and the programs instituted across the university, the nation is still far from achieving King’s dream of integration and the formation of basic human rights for the disadvantaged.
Issues regarding segregation and racial inequality still persist today, and have dominated many of the news headlines over the past few years.
These issues persist because “this country has fallen in love with the myth of Martin Luther King Jr.,” says Henry Louis Taylor Jr., professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning.
“As a nation, we have rejected King’s vision of a good society based on racial and social justice. The great irony is that everybody knows that Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream, but they have no idea what that dream was,” notes Taylor, who will discuss King’s conceptualization of neighborhoods today in his course, “Race, Class, Gender and the City.”
“King pointed out that this nation would quickly embrace the smaller freedoms, like voting and sitting at a lunch counter, because they did not cost anything. He argued that they would battle against the larger freedoms — good education and housing, and jobs with a living wage — because they were expensive and would require structural change.”
Taylor urges people to understand that desegregation and integration are not the same, and to continue advocating for the larger freedoms that were the basis of King’s dream.
“King not only participated in the transformation of the United States, but he offered a vision of the type of America the nation needed to become,” he says.