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MLK Commemorative March sparks conversations on history and inclusion

January 16, 2023
<p>The MSU Martin Luther King Jr. march on Monday, Jan. 16, 2023.</p>

The MSU Martin Luther King Jr. march on Monday, Jan. 16, 2023.

The words of Martin Luther King Jr. carried through Beaumont Tower with the chanting of “How Long? Not long,” the speech that King gave after the Selma march to tell Black people all throughout America that they would not suffer much longer in their fight for civil rights.

Now, the marchers for the MLK’s Commemorative March on Michigan State University's campus use these words to commemorate the progress King made for the black students and faculty. 

Department of Psychology and Honors College professor Lee June referred to King's famous “I Have A Dream” speech and why there was a march on Washington, saying they were there to cash a blank check from the government that their community had never been able to redeem. He continued that while the students and faculty are still marching to demonstrate “their shameful condition,” they are also there to celebrate King’s dream coming to fruition.

“There are still reasons to march,” June said during his speech. “We have to continue to demand that MSU close the opportunity gap.”

Interim President Teresa Woodruff attended the march and told the crowd her own story of looking up at the tower every morning and being transported back 168 years ago to the founding of the university. When she looks at Beaumont, Woodruff said remembers what she thinks is the university’s founding purpose: to open the door of education to the broadest and most diverse group of students across Michigan.

Woodruff, while invoking the words of King, said that the students and faculty have the “fierce urgency of now,” and pointed at the Rock on Farm Lane, and said it has aided generations of students to have a voice on campus. She also pointed out the future project that will be across the street from the Rock: the multicultural center. The future construction site of this freestanding building was the final stop of the march.

“We will all walk together, arm in arm, to our fierce urgency of now to that place where our voices are heard … across the street to that place where new generations of leaders…will be part of that new building: the multicultural center,” Woodruff said in her speech.

Broadcast journalism senior Angela Solomon, who is serving as Miss Black in the MSU Alphas pageant, spoke to the importance of the march as a way for marginalized students to call attention to King and his vision, but also to the addition of MSU’s multicultural center.

“The multicultural center is something that students have been fighting for since the 90s,” Solomon said. “For it to be 2023 and we just ordered this building is something that is extremely monumental, and I hope that our students will be able to come together and still bring on change.”

Also in attendance was Trustee Rema Vassar, who was recently sworn in chair of the Board of Trustees. Vassar is the first Black woman to hold the position. She believes that while King had a dream of education equity, she said he also had a critique of the true function of education and if modern education would live up to the potential of what it should be.

Vassar said that education is “a matter of life or death” and that she is working to close those opportunity gaps that June had spoken about in his speech by embracing the diverse students in our hallways and Spartans globally.

She also spoke to those who did not think she belonged in the Board of Trustees, commenting on King’s dream to see the Black people in leadership positions in education. 

“Some don’t think I deserve it (and) don’t think I represent you,” Vassar said. “What I do represent is the promise of Martin Luther King Jr. What I represent is the promise of possibility, the promise of potential and the promise of power when we all come together and decide what it will be and what it will be is the dream realized.”

Professional and public writing senior Charlotte Bachelor spoke about how MLK Day is a time to think about sacrifice and remembering how her family would tell her stories about MLK coming to Detroit, or hearing his speeches for the first time. She said it was about seeing how far her community has come since then, yet also reflecting on what issues are still happening even on her own campus. 

While Bachelor enjoys seeing her peers speak at events like the march, she believes that accountability should still lie on the shoulders of the administration to make change.

“When you're paying a lot of money to be in this space, and it's clear you're not wanted by the actions or what's left unsaid by your classmates and faculty, it can sometimes be a bit isolating,” Bachelor said.

Bachelor said being seen and heard is important because she feels these events are often lost in an email thread sent out by the university or that change happens behind closed doors or between whispers among students, and that change is never settled in public. However, marches allow for Black students across campus to be heard.

Bachelor explained that for many Black students, MLK Day is not seen as a day off, but a day on for working on change in their community. She said she wants the non-Black students to see the work that their community puts in everyday and have those students instead “pick up the rake” on MLK Day and come out to these events or at least be mindful of how they are spending their time on the holiday.

“I think this is important in showing we're still here and fighting for these issues and it's not just a one day a year thing,” Bachelor said. “This is the day that the government has told us we can talk … and march about these things. I think it's an important reminder, especially to students who don't have to march to be heard on campus or have their struggle regulated to a certain day of the year.”

Interdisciplinary humanities and educational studies senior Clayton Griffith said that MLK Day would ideally be a day of remembrance to not only King, but the history of the work of him and many others in the Civil Rights movement.

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Griffith said that this work has led to the modern ideology of Black students as “living with purpose, promise, and perseverance” as well as being conscious of the intentionality that continuing his legacy gives to the black community of MSU.

“(Today is) a major part of our nation's history, specifically, for my community and my family,” Griffith said. “I think it also serves as a recognition of America's past… Ideally, just having the ability to acknowledge what we have gone through and what we have persevered through and what we continue working towards.”

Editor's note: A previous edition of this article claimed Robert L. Green spoke about King's "I Have A Dream" speech. Professor Lee June was the one who referred to the speech.

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