In 1953, Martin Luther King Jr. showed only a glimmer of the influence that would eventually unite communities for a common fight against inequality. Fifty-one years later, the memory of King seems as powerful as the man himself, as evidenced by recent celebrations across the country in honor of his birthday.
In honor of King, MU will sponsor a weeklong celebration, “The Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on American Public Policy.” The event begins today with a speech by professor and National Public Radio commentator Roger Wilkins and a town hall meeting. Events running through Friday will highlight the continuing impact of King’s civil rights work. They are free and open to all.
“It provides an opportunity for the University of Missouri to join the national community as it recognizes Martin Luther King Jr’s contributions to American life,” said Charles Sampson, chairman of the week’s planning committee.
Wilkins, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, kicks off the celebration at 6:30 p.m. in the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center, 813 Virginia Ave., with a presentation about King’s lasting effects on public policy. Following the presentation, at 7:30, is the town hall meeting on “Intercultural America, Intercultural Mizzou.”
Jeffrey R. Williams, a member of the planning committee, suggested Wilkins for the opening event. “In a certain sense, he is the embodiment of the civil rights movement, and he’s lived it in a lot of ways,” Williams said.
Wilkins began his own career in public policy as an intern with Thurgood Marshall at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Legal Defense Fund. He is now a professor of history and American culture at George Mason University in Arlington, Va.
Wilkins is well-known for his investigative coverage of Watergate, which in 1973 netted him the Pulitzer Prize along with Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein and
Hal Herblock. Wilkins has also written two books, two “Frontline” documentaries and served as assistant attorney general under President Lyndon B. Johnson. Williams hopes people will leave Wilkins’ presentation more willing to talk about the racial chasm Williams believes exists in society today.
“I think there was a time when we were more hopeful than we are now,” he said.
The town hall discussion following Wilkins’ presentation focuses on a “color-blind society” as described by King and how to tackle the cultural barriers to such a society.
“It seems to me the issue of race and diversity is something we kind of shun around here,” said Michael Porter, moderator for the discussion. “I think we have just kind of gone on assuming things are fine.”