The Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: Respecting the Diversity and Inherent Dignity of the Georgetown University Community

Dear Members of the Georgetown University Community:

Next Monday we will again gather in the opening days of a new semester to celebrate the life of an American, who, as much as anyone in the twentieth-century, shaped the world in which we live. In the years since his death on April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has become an iconic figure. Like Abraham Lincoln, his legacy transcends the life he lived. With his growing stature, it is not always easy to sustain a sense of the actual man who did so much to shape the way we think about our lives together in this nation.

As we have for the past several years, on Monday, January 18th, in partnership with the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, we host a special citywide celebration of Dr. King’s life. Through the event, we hope to express and sustain the spirit of this extraordinary American.

Dr. King saw himself as continuing the work of those who had made the promise of this nation possible – the Founding Fathers, Jefferson, and Lincoln – those who dug “those great wells of democracy,” capturing the “best in the American dream.” His “dream” was “rooted in the American dream.” A dream that all of us were, are, and will always be responsible for achieving. This responsibility comes with our citizenship.

Martin Luther King, Jr. understood the promise of America . But he also understood the concrete realities confronting our citizens – the racial discrimination once written into our Constitution. He understood the “fierce urgency” of extending the story of America to African Americans – a community of people who for centuries had been denied their inalienable rights. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” he wrote: “…I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.” And then he wrote these prophetic words, which sought to capture that “now” the challenges in the “Southland” were America ’s challenge:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

Through trials that would have broken most of us, Dr. King never faltered, never wavered. He never lost faith in “the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage.” He never lost faith that “unconditional love will have the final word in reality.” He never lost faith in the promise of the American dream. He never lost faith in our ability to achieve racial equality and a more just society, one that respects, protects, and promotes the inherent dignity of each and every member.

This is why we come together every year. To remind ourselves of what we are called to be, as sisters and brothers, as Americans – and to put that calling into action.

Our celebration of Dr. King comes at a time of tension in the life of the Georgetown University community, as we reflect on recent experiences over the past nine months on our campus. Perhaps we can take this moment at the beginning of a new academic season to reflect on the responsibilities that come with membership in our academic community.

As many of you are aware, twice in the past year published efforts by students at humor or satire have caused pain and distress for members of our community. The first, last spring, involved an April Fools edition of the student newspaper, The Hoya. The second took place shortly before the Christmas break with a non-University-affiliated website run by students, the Georgetown Heckler. The critique that has unfolded in response to these incidents has been responsible, respectful, and fitting for an academic community that is committed to the free exchange of ideas.

Following the incident last April, I met with student leaders and then held a Town Hall meeting in which I delivered a set of remarks, seeking to address what is at stake when members of our community feel that their identities, cultures, faiths, or histories are not being respected. At that meeting, I announced the launch of our Diversity and Inclusiveness Initiative. Co-led by Provost James O’Donnell and Vice President for Institutional Diversity and Equity Rosemary Kilkenny, this initiative established three working groups focused on key areas of concern – academics, student life, and undergraduate student recruitment and admissions.

The working groups were charged in the late spring and met through the summer and fall. In early December, I met with the chairs of these working groups. The Working Group on Undergraduate Student Recruitment and Admissions was co-chaired by Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Charles Deacon, Senior Vice President for Strategic Development Daniel Porterfield, and Ryan Wilson (C’12). They presented a final report that Provost O’Donnell and I have accepted, and we will ensure the necessary steps for implementation are taken. The Working Group on Student Life has been co-chaired by Vice President for Student Affairs Todd Olson and Joshua Guzman (F’10); the Working Group on Academics has been co-chaired by Associate Professors Sam Mujal-Leon of the Department of Government and Veronica Salles-Reese of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese. These two groups will resume their work this semester. Provost O’Donnell and I look forward to receiving their recommendations for how we can strengthen our efforts to promote a respectful and inclusive community in and out of the classroom.

Now in the face of all of this effort, which builds on the commitments of countless others who came before us in building this community, we confront this second incident – the online publication during exam week of an article that referenced the Ku Klux Klan and the murder of African Americans in the name of satire. Mocking the history of oppression of others is not funny, does not build community, and does not reflect well on those who engage in it. We often cannot know how our words or deeds can hurt one another – how such an act can bring back into another’s consciousness an experience of a previous injustice or indignity.

I would like to build upon my comments from April, particularly in the context of the life of the American hero whom we celebrate on Monday.

Perhaps the most powerful contribution of Martin Luther King, Jr. is the manner in which he brought together the resources of a religious tradition, the methodology of non-violence, the talents and hope of the African American community, and the best of the American story. In so doing, he embraced the deepest and most profound moral commitment that holds us together as a people – the respect for human dignity. Dr. King legitimized an expectation that each of us – regardless of the color of our skin, our gender, our ethnicity, our sexual identity, or our economic means – has a claim to be treated with dignity. Dignity demands a mutuality of respect. We have a claim to our own self-worth by the very humanity we share with one another.

Georgetown University is an intentional community – comprising a very diverse student body and faculty. There are values we set for ourselves and seek to uphold here in our life and work together. We – so varied in our origins and interests – succeed only to the extent that we respect the varieties that make us whole. Our undergraduate students were born more than a generation after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. But that does not mean that he is simply a figure out of history. For so many of us, the history that he lived and sought to change is very much alive as we remember incidents of racism that defined an earlier generation, and as we confront circumstances today – on campus or in the larger community – in which someone shows a lack of respect for the dignity of others. We have made progress since the days of Jim Crow, but striking examples of injustice remain present in our community. Writing from a jail in Birmingham , Dr. King described the “stinging darts of segregation.” We need to acknowledge, in moments like this, that we are still capable of these “stinging darts,” and the damage that can be done by them.

Dr. King enabled our nation to grasp the shared dignity we all have by virtue of our common humanity. He called for a “fierce urgency” to address the indignities suffered every day by our fellow citizens. From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, he acknowledged the “jangling discords of our nation” and encouraged us, together, to create a “beautiful symphony” built upon our common humanity. We must acknowledge that here, within our own community, we have our own “discords,” and we must accept with urgency the responsibility to build a community in which each of us is always respected for our inherent dignity.


John J. DeGioia

All quotations of Dr. King for this letter were taken from the following works by Dr. King: “I Have a Dream,” (1963) “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” (1963) and “Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech (1964).