Dear Dr. King,
As we celebrate your birthday, we also celebrate the incredible, selfless, and biblically centered teachings with which you inspired the world through your advocacy and activism. I am sure your reunion with your parents and most cherished loved ones has affixed your heart and soul with a permanent smile. Additionally, I hope the progress this country has made not only gives you equally as much reason to smile; but rather even more excitement when you think of this nation and her potential to realize a perfect tone of racial harmony, justice and equity for all.
I cannot imagine the tenacity, courage, and faith it took to walk in your shoes. In fact, the only solace when trying to comprehend your resolve is my steadfast reliance on Jeremiah 1:7, “But the LORD said to me, ‘Do not say, “I am too young.”’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you”; you were on assignment by the father to do his work. Yes, slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, desegregation and racism (covert and overt) have left damaging effects. Tempered souls balk at optimism and trust, while citing atrocities (like the infusion of crack cocaine) the Tuskegee experiment and the calculated assassinations of black men who rose as leaders – coupled with seemingly consistent denials and violation of our civil rights, lynching, murder, town burnings, rape and many other crimes committed against people who wanted acceptance as equal citizens of the nation. These practices were prevalent during your lifetime. While remnants remain in mine, some things have changed.
The night before your assassination you gave life to my favorite speech in your expansive repertoire: “If the almighty said to me, ‘Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?’” You shared a desire to take mental flights across the Red Sea, and through the wilderness of the Promised Land. Your desire to visit Greece, to see Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Euripides and Aristophanes, wasn’t strong enough to keep you there. No, you sought the amazing developments in cultural and esthetic life of man through the Roman Empires Renaissance. However, there was not an age you desired to live either.
Given your penchant for equality and seeing if America could live up to her full potential, the signing of the emancipation proclamation would not keep you either. Pretty tempting, admittedly; likewise, those eras wouldn’t hold my attention to contentment.
All the splendor, progressive and worldly developments paled in comparison to your desire to live just a few years in the second half of the twentieth century. Your rationale was simply powerful. You said, “And another reason that I’m happy to live in this period is that we have been forced to a point where we’re going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demands didn’t force them to do it. Survival demands that we grapple with them.”
Despite the infancy of America’s attempt to give equity to all of her citizens, the subjugation, lack of equality, and the known death sentence associated with registering to vote, plus the real dark side you were faced with, you chose to live in this age, with a piercing eye into the future. Why? If I had to guess, I would say it was the promise and potential this great nation had. I couldn’t agree more.
There are many challenges facing our country today. Better today are we from the days of slavery, reconstruction, Jim Crow and the civil rights era. But as you know, there is still a ways to go to reach a day where folks are equal, have equity, and are, “Judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin.” My upbringing as a product of inner-city poverty keeps me grounded in the past, how bad things have been and how they can change at a moment’s notice. Conversely, the gift of your teachings, faith in God, my own personal commitment to social good and leadership finds me enthusiastically optimistic that your dream will come to pass. So much progress has occurred in this nation and I feel, like you, “every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.” I believe more of us will, as my hope is rooted in this notion.
As the 17th president of Wiley College, we celebrated the birthday of your good friend and one of our phenomenal alums on January 12th, James L. Farmer, Jr. As a student at Wiley, he blazed trails as a “Great Debater” and found new trails to blaze as founder of The Congress of Racial Equality (C.O.R.E.). Mr. Farmer, like so many of our alumni, benefited from your teachings and unadulterated zest for equality. This continuum of excellence in the field of social good and leadership has emanated since our inception in 1873. Heman Marion Sweatt, a 1934 graduate of Wiley fought to integrate the University of Texas law school. The spirit of advocating for what’s right, for the least of us, is who we are. That spirit resonated then and is clearer today – with us.
We will continue your work and the work of our fearless alumni, ready to continue our position at the tip of the spear aimed at extinguishing hate, bigotry, intolerance and the continued practice of social injustice. In March of 2019, we, the Wiley College family, will launch the Heman M. Sweatt Center for Social Good and Leadership. It is there, you will find a continued commitment to finding, facilitating, and fostering change.
Herman J. Felton, Jr. J.D., Ph.D.
17th President, Wiley College