|Dear Faculty, Staff, and Students:
Monday’s annual commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life should be a soul-stirring call to deeply examine, reflect on, and—most importantly—act to change systemic injustices that have long tarnished widely espoused American ideals about freedom, equality, and opportunity for all.
The evidence driving this need for self‑examination is undeniably and painfully visible. Indeed, current events cry out to us for urgent action, demanding that we attend to racial injustice and that we rediscover and rebuild our common humanity.
The high visibility, race‑based violence of the past year that roiled the country has provided stark reminders of our collective failures and shortcomings as a society. January 6 in Washington, D.C., offered another front‑row view of our nation’s badly unbalanced scales of justice. Contrast the response of law enforcement that day to violent, mostly white rioters with the response to largely peaceful Black Lives Matter marchers in the capital last spring and summer.
In short, the hopes and dreams of thousands of Americans of color have been regularly shattered throughout our nation’s nearly 250‑year history, due in large part to our collective denial of a long and complex Eurocentric worldview that has dominated the American power structure since the country’s founding.
What guidance does Dr. King offer appropriate to our times? He would call on us to act—peacefully—and demand the creation of just laws. Failing to act, he argued in the Letter from Birmingham Jail he penned in 1963, makes us complicit with the status quo. Two passages from the letter drive home that point:
“Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
“…. I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent, and determined action.”
In his 2019 New York Times bestseller, How to be an AntiRacist, author Ibram Kendi urges a similar emphasis on action to root out racism. Dr. Kendi, who spoke at WSU’s MLK Day keynote event in 2019, writes, in part:
“The opposite of ‘racist’ isn’t ‘not racist.’ It is ‘anti‑racist.’ What’s the difference? One endorses either the idea of a racial hierarchy as a racist, or racial equality as an anti‑racist. One either believes problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an antiracist…the only way to undo racism is to consistently identify and describe it—and then dismantle it.”
All of us must be willing to engage and join in the efforts to create a just and equitable community at WSU as well as in the larger communities of which we are a part. MLK Day must be about more than a day. As such, planning groups system‑wide have created a series of events that promise to expand our understanding of Dr. King and challenge us to act. But before we act, we must pause and consider the past 50‑plus years: how far we may have come, and how far we have yet to go. Commemorating Dr. King’s life allows for such a pause.
As we begin a new semester, let us resolve to act to bring Dr. King’s words from Birmingham to fruition:
“Let us all hope that … in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”
Mary Jo Gonzales