When James Earl Ray’s bullet pierced the skull of Martin Luther King Jr., he inadvertently catalyzed the United States — a nation whose fabrics were embedded with racial tension and hostility — to resolve its differences.
Martin Luther King Jr.'s short life and early death created a rallying cry as blacks and whites labored intensively to create a world where they would not be judged the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
Yet as the nation celebrates his annual holiday this year, many African-Americans feel King's visions for social justice and equality are far from achieved. Elon University is no exception to the ongoing conversations about race relations in the United States.
“For me, Martin Luther King represents a feeling of frustration," said Jamie Butler, the assistant director for Elon’s Center for Race, Ethnicity and Diversity Education (CREDE). “When I read the daily newspaper and go back and read the letter in the Birmingham Jail, it looks like contemporary writing. It brings a lot of anger and sadness to think about how this man gave his life for this cause and we’re still going through this fight today. We’ve come a long way but we really haven’t.”
Though the nation has taken strides since the Civil Rights Movement, many individuals see a parallel between the 1960s and today. As the United States recuperates from a racially-charged 2015 highlighted by acts of police brutality and heated protests, several Elon students believe the national tension and uneasiness has trickled down to their college community.
Senior Black Student Union President Alexandre Bohannon said he recognizes and appreciates King’s efforts to combat injustice and lead the Civil Rights Movement. Had it not been for King, Bohannan is not sure he would be attending a predominantly white institution today. But Bohannon also believes systematic improvement is necessary for Elon to ultimately embody the late reverend’s dream of complete racial equality.
“The biggest problem is really a lack of intercultural competency," Bohannon said. "I’ve seen a lot of people focused on themselves and their particular circle and not about those who are different than them. In my interactions with those people, I’ve had to adapt to what they are and what they may or not be offended with."
Intercultural competency is understanding others from different backgrounds. In Bohannon’s four years at Elon, he said he has been the subject of many stereotypes and assumptions simply because of his race. Because of this, Bohannon recommended the university implement more diversity education into its curriculum because it would enable students to have a greater understanding of other groups of people.
“In the job market, intercultural competency is valued greatly, especially if you have to interact with people of diverse backgrounds," Bohannon said. “If you've grown up in this one-dimensional environment and if you're not able to interact with someone different than you, you’re already at a deficit. “
With the support of Butler and Bohannon, Elon's common summer reading for Class of 2019 students was "Why We Can’t Wait" by King. This book was chosen before the eruption of most recent events, which speaks to the cross-generational values King stressed. Jeffrey Coker, director of the Elon Core Curriculum, said he and his team intentionally selected "Why We Can't Wait" so more students would engage in a dialogue important issues of race relations.
“The Common Reading Committee thought that reading an extended text by MLK would be a mind-expanding experience for Elon students," Coker said. “The book’s messages resonate strongly with modern events and conditions happening all around us, both in our local community and around the world."
While Elon promoted the common reading during the summer for freshmen, it has tried to increase dialog about race to the entire university community this Winter Term. CREDE is hosting numerous events for students and faculty to voice their concerns and ideas on how to work through their differences.
But people must take the initiative to educate themselves. Just 30 people attended a CommUNITY dinner Jan. 14 to discuss the issue of inclusivity on campus. Similar to the CommUNITY dinner, only 30 students attended the Jan. 12 “Engaging in Privilege, Faith, and Love,” session — a two-hour event encouraging individuals to openly discuss racial privilege. Elon also had to cancel its annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day march on campus because of a lack of numbers for participating.
Elon can only offer and sponsor such events. The university can’t force people to attend.
“In my position, I love advocating for students, but I also talk with students about how to advocate themselves,” Butler said. "Even as a faculty member, I can only go so far. “
Many students are also disappointed in their peers for not doing their part to participate in events hosted by Elon. Freshman Kenneth Brown Jr. serves as class president and argues that addressing racial issues must be a high priority for students.
“When we talk about this, its the same 15-20 people that are always involved in these discussions,” he said. “We need to find a way to get the people that need to be talking about this in the room. These [events hosted by Elon during Winter Term] create an atmosphere where you can say what you feel about these issues. For some people, that is the hardest thing to do. “
King and his followers envisioned a more racially tolerant world through nonviolent protest. He delivered powerful speeches and led marches that shook the country to its core. He displayed an unusual amount of courage, which ultimately led to his assassination. This unshakable determination and dogged attitude is the type of force many argue is necessary to create a more inclusive Elon University.
“Dr. King was one of those people who stood strong in the face of death,” Brown said. “He had to overcome himself if he wanted to be any type of change in this world. If this is our time to change anything, we have to be courageous. If we want to be more of an activist campus, we need to get over ourselves in some aspects, go out on a limb and see where our conversations take us. Some of the greatest things in this world have happened when people said how they really felt and asked how they could change it.”