By Drs. Sonnette M. Bascoe & Benjamin Espinoza
Special Advisors to the President for Diversity & Belonging
It’s probably safe to say that for most of us as young children growing up when it was time to celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he was mythologized. We learned that Dr. King was a good man who had a dream that one day all would be treated equally and judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin. Most of us left those lessons believing that King accomplished all that he set out to, and we live in a better America as a result. After all, we no longer see “Whites Only” signs on water fountains and bathrooms in the south, and people of color can now attend the same schools as European American individuals.
As we progressed in our schooling, however, some of us may have been fortunate to be challenged by our educators to observe the ways in which racism is still alive and well in America. Our eyes may have been opened to the necessary continued work of the Civil Rights Movement. For many Black Americans, learning about Dr. King as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was extremely pivotal and connected with their faith in God to strengthen them to fight against ongoing racism and social injustice.
When we review Dr. King’s public sermons and speeches, his roots in the Christian faith are unquestionably evident. He infused all of his public addresses with biblical and theological language, e.g., “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that,” refusing to disconnect his vision for the world from the Christian vision of peace and reconciliation.
However, as Dr. King knew, we cannot get at reconciliation without first knowing and acknowledging the truth. The hard truth is that the work of the Civil Rights Movement is not over. Dr. King’s work did not rectify all the injustices. This is evident in the continuation of inequality in housing, employment, education, health access/care, and the criminal justice system today. This is evident in the continued need for protests, marches, and outcries that the lives of people of color matter. This is evident in the persistence of White supremacy and systemic racism that continue to deny equal rights and opportunities to people of
Today, Black college graduates are twice as likely to be unemployed than European American college graduates. We as an institution celebrated the wonderful accomplishment that this academic year marked our most racially and ethnically diverse group of undergraduate students. While this is an accomplishment to celebrate, we must acknowledge and try to reconcile the hard truth that these same students will not have the same rights and opportunities afforded to them as their European American counterparts. There is still work for us to do.
Emphasis was placed on us because as was the case for Dr. King, this cannot be the work of one individual or placed on the shoulders of a small select group of people. Dr. King did not lead the movement alone. Other Black preachers, Black women warriors, Black youth activists, and their allies played critical roles in propelling the movement forward and carrying out the work. A common idea from King that many of us embrace is that of the Beloved Community—a community where all people are respected, cared for, and treated as equals. A beloved community where there is no space for injustice, prejudice, or discrimination. Rather, it is a space for economic and social justice, peaceful conflict resolution, and the reconciliation of humanity.
While this is a common notion that many of us embrace, the beloved community that King spoke of is more than just an ideology. In order for us to have such a beloved community, King said we must all “become outspoken champions.” He warned that we are all complicit when we see injustices and do nothing about them. He reminded us that we have a moral obligation to stand up for racial and social justice and to dismantle systems of racism and discrimination.
The late Congressman John Lewis, a disciple of Dr. King’s, shared these sentiments: “When you see something that is not right, you must say something. You must do something. Each of us must do our part to help build the Beloved Community.”
We can trace King’s advocacy for the beloved community to his theology, particularly his firm commitment to the doctrine of the Imago Dei, the truth that all humans are created in the image of God. For King, the implications of Imago Dei spanned from our respectful treatment of our neighbors to peaceful opposition to unjust wars. This principle served as a cornerstone for King’s entire project. While King’s work was initially focused on civil rights, his attention turned more toward human rights as he worked out the implications of the Imago Dei in his speeches, sermons and activism.
At Roberts and Northeastern, we affirm that all people are valuable in the eyes of God while recognizing that historical injustices such as the stealing of lands from Indigenous peoples, the enslavement of Africans, concentrated poverty, and the overall marginalization of minoritized groups continue to play a major role in how society is constructed and experienced. We believe that in order to fulfill the call to love God and neighbor wholeheartedly, we must be attentive to the ways in which institutions like Roberts and Northeastern can unintentionally perpetuate barriers that cause disparities and alienate already-marginalized students, staff, and faculty.
Implicit biases, microaggressions, exclusionary or exploitative policies, and practices, and ignorance of relevant cultural events pervade predominantly White institutions. As a Christ-centered learning community, we must be attentive to these dynamics and dismantle systems that dehumanize people, as we are all created in the image of God. In the context of Christian higher education, we believe that the work of diversity and belonging is not only important in creating an inclusive environment wherein all people can thrive, but also in allowing the community to demonstrate that we are Christ’s disciples. By celebrating the diversity of our community while also seeking to explicitly address racial and social disparities, we believe that we can reflect the love of God toward others and serve as a beacon of hope in a society plagued by division, prejudice, and hate.
It is only through creating this kind of life-giving and hospitable community that we can honor Dr. King’s legacy and, in his words, bring to fruition the day that all God’s children will be able to join hands and redeem the soul of America.