Rebecca Chopp joined the Swarthmore community as president of the College in July 2009. A scholar of religion and American culture, her most recent research has focused on religion and higher education, changing structures and cultures of higher education, and on the role of liberal arts in a democratic society. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.—culturally, politically and personally—means considering how aspects of his philosophy and life evoke questions about and provide guidance in our current context. Martin Luther King Jr. was a great American public intellectual who took values and meanings from the traditions of the America he knew and used them to create a different vision from the reality in which he lived. King reinterpreted these values and meanings, fusing words together in new ways that Americans both understood and were challenged by, and he used these words to create a vision to pull America forward. From his reading of liberal theology, his understanding of the black church, and the American democratic tradition, King crafted a vision of America that he called the American Dream. His vision allowed him, in an act of narrative imagination, to project a dream, a stirring vision for America even as it freed him to criticize current reality.
In words that are quoted nearly as often as the words of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, King narrated his hopes for our shared future:
"I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed, 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.' I have a dream that one day... sons of former slaves and sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood...This will be the day when all God's children will be able to sing with new meaning, 'My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.'"
Students join together in celebration of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
I think Cornel West, Noel Erskine, and other scholars are correct when they suggest four sources of King's thought: the prophetic black church experience; prophetic liberal Christian theology that King learned while attending Crozer Seminary in Chester, Pa., and then as he did his doctoral work at Boston University; the American civil religion tradition; and a Gandhian method of nonviolent social change. King's public intellectual thought may be summarized by focusing, briefly, on three themes that he uses time and time again that bring together for him liberal theology, the prophetic black church experience, and the civil democratic tradition. These themes provide some interesting points of discussion for us as we dream about our visions for Swarthmore and in those visions ask questions about how to evolve further as a community, toward what Vice President for College and Community Relations Maurice Eldridge '61 described in his 2002 essay "Diversity Then and Now" as "an ideal Swarthmore that is not only inclusive and generous but realistic about what kind of effort is required to create and sustain a truly diverse community."
The themes that have always struck me in King's work are justice, love, and hope. And because the liberal theological traditions and the prophetic black church experience of the south may not be known to many, let me suggest what I think King meant by these terms.
Justice: Legal and Cultural
In the liberal theological tradition and the prophetic black church experience that informed King, justice is about taking care of the poor and the suffering, ameliorating the ills of society, and making right the way for the downtrodden. Justice is about political rights for King, but it also encompasses existential dignity for those on the margins of society. King's image of the beloved community (a term often associated with the Kingdom of God in Christian theology) becomes transformed as an apt description for the vision of American democracy, a vision from which a powerful critique of injustice could arise. This vision of democracy and liberal theology eventually led King to oppose the Vietnam War and to criticize the close links between poverty, racism, and militarism, a move that cost him support in both the white and black communities. Justice, according to King's interpretations of American traditions, is about political matters such as economic rights, but it is also about culture and how individuals live together, how they work together, how they sit down together. Justice is both a personal-existential claim and a political-moral claim; for King, justice included both legal desegregation and creating a culture of respect.
Love as a Moral Idea
Rebecca Chopp reflects on Dr. King's legacy.
Love is a central tenet — perhaps the core — of the liberal theological tradition in which King was trained and the black church experience in which King was raised. In 1949, while living in Chester, Pa., King wrote: "It is quite easy for me to think of a God of love mainly because I grew up in a family where love was central." We don't think about love as a moral claim, less so as a claim of democracy. But for King, the moral ideal of love — learned in his black church experience, his liberal theological formation, and his family and community — contributed to his embrace of nonviolence as necessary for the achievement of justice. And it was love as a moral idea that shaped the way in which he linked militarism, racism, and poverty in the United States as he took his stance against the war in Vietnam and spoke about oppression around the world. Love named for King the moral reality that all life is interconnected: "We must all live together as brothers, or we will all perish together as fools. We must come to see that no individual can live alone, no nation can live alone, we must all live together; we must be concerned about each other." And, to follow King's sense of justice, love was a moral claim that encompassed personal and existential demands as well as political and social demands. Love would be fulfilled by a fully integrated society — a society of respect but also one of engagement.
Hope Against Hope
Faculty, staff, and students came together in celebration and remembrance.
The prophetic black church experience, the liberal theological tradition, and a great deal of the American democratic tradition are infused with hope—what King sometimes called hope against hope. Hope in King's thought functions in at least two ways: first, it is expressed in a kind of performative narration of what life will be or should be; and second, it counterbalances the despair felt by so many. So when King says, "I have a dream," with descriptions of what the "table of brotherhood" will look like, he is narrating for everyone what we must become. And this vision, in its performative drama, serves as a counterbalance to despair. President Obama in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech made the words of King's acceptance speech his own: "I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the 'isness' of man's present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal 'oughtness' that forever confronts him."
Although the American democratic tradition is still debated on the public stage, the prophetic black church experience and the liberal theological tradition so influential in King's thought are largely gone from the public scene. Still, to understand King is to think seriously about our own narrative imagination of themes of justice, love, and hope and to ask ourselves how we might narrate a vision that is both political and moral as well as personal and existential.
The Legacy of the Civil Rights Movement at Swarthmore
Clinton Etheridge '69 and Don Mizell '71 making their voices heard in their student days.
Swarthmore's own history and the civil rights movement on our campus should also inform our hopes for the future of the College. Though founded by abolitionists who worked long and hard against slavery, Swarthmore did not allow African American students for many years. Indeed, in 1905, according to Charles Dalington '15, when an African American student showed up for school, having been accepted through the application process, the boy and his parents were told that an error had been committed. Again in 1932, a black student was denied admission. As Clinton Etheridge '69 writes in his very fine essay "The Crucible of Character, A Personal Account of Swarthmore's Crisis of 1969 (p.22) [pdf]," it is very hard for us to imagine today that this could have been the political or the cultural reality. By the 1960s, a few African Americans were attending Swarthmore. Etheridge entered the College in the fall of 1965 and, as he describes it in Ralph Ellison's metaphor, was largely "invisible."
The Swarthmore African American Student Society (SASS), following the teachings of King and others, began to confront the College. Etheridge, chair of SASS, and vice chair Don Mizell '71 pushed the administration about its admissions practices. On Jan. 9, 1969 Etheridge led a nonviolent takeover of the admissions office lasting for one full week. In reading Etheridge's account of the difficulties of this period and — equally important — the results of that effort, I was reminded that as we honor King we honor Etheridge and others who made the civil rights movement real in our community.
Certainly progress has been made at Swarthmore in making the community more diverse and representative of the world around us and in broadening and deepening access. Culturally and politically, Swarthmore is a different place than it was in the 1960s. Although numbers only tell part of any story, we can use them as an indication of some change at least: In 1968, the student body comprised 4.4 percent African American students and 6.2 percent students of color. In 2009, the student body comprised 9.6 percent African American students and 37.7 percent students of color. Records on faculty identify only people of color. In the 1989-1990 academic year, 10 percent of the faculty self-identified as people of color. In the 2009-2010 academic year, 17 percent of the faculty self-identified as people of color.
At present, 14 percent of our staff members are African American and 18 percent identify as people of color.
A National Science Foundation report in August 2008 noted that about 9 percent of Swarthmore's African American graduates go on to earn doctorates in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, compared to 11 percent from M.I.T., 7 percent from Princeton, 6 percent from Harvard, and 6 percent from Amherst. I will let these numbers symbolize progress made in our academic, cultural, and policy realms as well.
Building on the Legacy
Members of the community discuss their hopes for the College's future.
We honor figures such as King and Etheridge so we will never forget and never repeat the wrongs they addressed, but also so we can continue pursuing their dream, even beyond their own narration of it. To do so we must ask what questions their legacy poses for us today.
In a paper issued by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, Damon Williams [pdf] and his co-authors note the importance of including diversity and multiculturalism in a model he calls inclusive excellence. Inclusive excellence means, in their words "focus on student intellectual and social development; purposeful development and utilization of organizational resources to enhance student learning; attention to the cultural differences learners bring to the educational experience and that enhance the enterprise; and a welcoming community that engages all of its diversity in the service of student and organizational learning." Williams suggests that the next stage for campuses in becoming more diverse is the uniting of diversity and excellence at all points.
What is Swarthmore's vision for inclusive excellence in our community? And in light of King's emphasis on the interconnectedness of all people, what is our vision for global inclusive excellence? What image do we have of Swarthmore's future that addresses global inclusivity with equal rights, dignity and respect, and substantive engagement for, of, and by all? Do we understand what kind of effort is required to create and sustain a diverse community?
Vice President for College and Community Relations Maurice Eldridge '61 has published an essay titled "Diversity Then and Now" and has long been an advocate for an truly diverse college community.
A graduate of Morehouse, this country's finest liberal arts college for African American men, King represents to us someone who used his intellectual, moral, and professional life to be a public actor, to make a difference in this country and this world, to create a vision for America and for humanity. Liberal arts education is the institution that is responsible—through the young people we teach and the knowledge they and we create—for the future of our society and world. Both aspects of that responsibility work together in the development, transmission, and acquisition of knowledge; both also work together as we educate our students to care for and build the common good. At liberal arts colleges like Morehouse and Swarthmore, the link between the development of the individual intellect and the flourishing of the common good is assumed.
But what does it mean for us today? Martin Luther King expressed his vision as a dream he had for America, which allowed him to engage in critical thinking while also constructively acting to create a new reality. Are we creating the next generation of public intellectuals for this global, rapidly changing, and incredibly pluralistic environment? How do we use our intellectual and cultural capital to develop new narratives of justice, love, and hope for American and for the world? How do we address the complex problems on global and local levels by bringing together our academic rigor in and across disciplines with what Assistant Professor of Political Science Ben Berger has called our "civic, social, and moral work?"
In conclusion, and in the spirit of continued reflection, I offer two quotes from King:
"Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality."
"The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically... Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education."