College of Arts and Sciences

Reflections on Martin Luther King Jr. Day Symposium: Together, With Voices Raised, We Shall Overcome  

MLK symposium

Participants and speakers at the MLK Day symposium.

In his address at the recent Martin Luther King Day Symposium, keynote speaker Dr. Khalil Muhammad drew a parallel between America during the civil rights era of the 1950's and 1960's, and where the country finds itself today.

A video recording of the symposium is available. Watch here.

Muhammad, who is the Ford Foundation Professor of History, Race and Public Policy at Harvard's John Kennedy F. School of Government, reminded his audience that, "Everyone was not a warrior for justice." As the activist momentum swelled in some communities during the civil rights movement, Muhammad explained, Dr. King called on people from all walks of life and every corner of the nation to strike at the heart of injustice by caring enough to "walk in the creative light of altruism." Dr. King, he said, laid the truth at the feet of his countrymen, declaring that "America cannot remain a first-class nation, so long as she has second-class citizens."

Professor Muhammad connected the civil rights movement to the response of thousands of Americans taking to the streets to protest police brutality and the killing of George Floyd in 2020. He went on to acknowledge the counter-protests that have since emerged – the "anti-anti-racist movement," evidenced by book bans, state legislation against classroom discussion about race and racism, and the drive to keep educators from teaching about America's long history of structural inequalities. Based in fear and misinformation, Professor Muhammad said, the long legacy of anti-black racism "poisons everyone and everything it touches." He called on the audience, gathered at Bethany Hall and online, to courageously face the facts that many of the norms and policies that feed racism today, are limiting America's ability to be a first-class nation. Quoting writer and activist James Baldwin, he said: "Everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed unless it is faced."

Khalil Muhammad

Keynote speaker Professor Khalil Muhammad

Bringing MLK's Legacy to Life at Seton Hall
In addition to Khalil Muhammad's powerful keynote address, students, staff, religious leaders and neighbors from the community, had a chance to hear from more than a dozen speakers at Seton Hall's annual MLK Symposium on January 16. The morning began with Pete Seeger's folk-inspired rendition of "We Shall Overcome." Participants learned about the history and the legacy of the iconic anthem, which was a work song, sung by slaves toiling in the fields. Borrowing from many other traditions, including a Christian hymn, "We Shall Overcome" evolved over time, and went on to become a protest anthem during the civil rights movement and continues to be sung by justice seekers around the world today.

Georita Frierson, Ph.D., Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, presented on the academic purpose of the MLK Symposium, tracing the history and impact of Supreme Court rulings that upheld racial segregation in our country, and the important victories that led separate-but-equal norms and practices to be overturned. Dean Frierson reminded the audience that despite progress made in the courts, the legacy of segregation exists across the country, where a majority of students attend schools that are made up predominantly of one race. "On this Dr. Martin Luther King Day," she said, "it is important that we acknowledge our history, the work, and the progress of the past, and how much we still have to do."

Established by Reverend Forrest Pritchett, Director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Leadership Program, the symposium has been offered at the University for decades. Around 2016, Reverend Pritchett initiated the idea of expanding the day-long symposium into a one-credit course for students at the University. All along, MLK Day at Seton Hall has brought the legacy of Dr. King to life – from beyond the memorials and monuments – to inspire the ongoing fight to end injustice.

MLK symposiumThe Next Generation of King Scholars
Using history to help light a path toward justice was the thread that ran through the symposium. Reverend Pritchett recalled the connection Seton Hall has to Martin Luther King, Jr., dating back to 1970, when the University established a scholarship program in honor of the slain civil rights leader. The MLK Scholars Program expanded in the 1990s to where it stands today, involving some 60 students each year. Currently, students from five countries and eight states participate in the program. "We are really casting a leadership mold through the MLK Scholars program," Pritchett shared. He described the program, which he founded, as one of the premier and longest-existing leadership programs at the University and among the oldest leadership programs in the United States. MLK students contribute more than 50 hours of service each year. "The program was the precursor to the legacy the University has to service today," added Pritchett, who was recently appointed interim director of Seton Hall's Africana Studies program.

Once Dr. Pritchett had set the stage for MLK Day, opening prayers were offered by clergy representing local faith communities. Then the audience heard from three MLK Scholars – Hannah Tate, a junior education major, Taiyonna Fitzgerald, a first-year student studying pre-law, and Stephanie Isabel, also a freshman, who is pursuing a degree in chemical engineering. The students identified 16 leadership principles that civil rights leaders including Dr. King embodied. Near the top of the list was "Persuading through Love and Nonviolence." Dr. King's philosophy of nonviolent resistance, Hannah Tate recounted, was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi's peaceful protests and inspired actions such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which begun in 1955, and the Sanitation Workers Strike of 1968.

Following the students, Charles Carter, Ph.D., professor of Religious Studies, reflected on the tension between good and evil in the Bible. There is so much good in the Bible exemplified in the value that is placed on all human beings in the creation story and other passages, he told his audience. But it is also important to recognize that the Bible includes "morally repugnant" passages that are inherently racist. People have used words from the Bible to justify racist actions including slavery, murder and land grabs, he explained. "The Bible matters and sometimes it matters in bad ways." But ultimately, what the Bible calls us to do, which is something that Martin Luther King echoed, "was to love God and love thy neighbor," Carter said.

History professor, Larry Greene, Ph.D., spoke passionately about the lack of attention paid to the contributions of African Americans to the country's history. African American history has gotten more exposure over the last few decades in scholarship and literature, he explained, but in general, the American public is "unaware of that historical experience." Greene discussed the contributions of African Americans to the nation's military history. He spoke about the bravery of the Massachusetts 54th, the Black regiment made up of over 600 men, who were part of the 180,000 Black soldiers who fought in the Union Army during the Civil War. Black soldiers made up over 10 percent of the military forces at the time. Opening the Union Army and Navy to black soldiers after two years of fighting, Greene said, helped win the war, and is something that military historians now acknowledge.

Greene concluded with the story of Jesse Brown, the country's first Black naval pilot whose story is portrayed in the new movie Devotion. Hailing from Mississippi, Brown desperately wanted to be a fighter pilot. He volunteered to serve his country, despite all the obstacles that Black Americans faced, from being kept away from lunch counters to being excluded from universities throughout the Jim Crow era. Brown wound up flying valiantly during the Korean conflict until his plane was shot down over North Korea. Like so many African Americans over the centuries, Greene said, "Brown gave his life to America and got little in return."

From a historical perspective, the program moved on to an examination of entrenched systems, behaviors, and beliefs that perpetuate issues of race and class. In his presentation, political science professor, W. King Mott, Ph.D., said that undeniable data demonstrates that a great disparity in income and in many other areas exists throughout society. "Why does it exist?" Mott asked. He turned to the voices of two writers – English writer, Virginia Woolf, and American author and journalist, Ta-Nehisi Coates – to help examine what fuels the disparities confronting society today, and what can be done now. Studying injustice through this lens, Mott landed on anger, the sense of power, superiority, and the inability to see privilege, particularly white privilege, within ourselves. Mott believes that we are in the midst of a "global revolution" that requires us to take "an inventory of ourselves," work that he admits will not be popular. "This can be done," he concluded.

Jon Radwan, Ph.D., a communications professor who studies rhetoric, returned to religion in his presentation. Radwan, who directs the Institute for Communication and Religion, demonstrated that Dr. King's non-violent direct-action campaigns were a form of authentic religious activism. He drew on King's Letter from Birmingham Jail (1963), to illustrate how hard work and non-violent action to advance peace is a spiritual and humane act. Studying MLK's words is not enough, he said, it is necessary to understand that "contact is persuasive" and that non-violent, physical direct action is also needed to make change happen.

The importance of building community through service was the subject of a presentation by Timothy Hoffman '15/M.P.A. '16, director of the Center for Community Research and Engagement. Hoffman highlighted the contributions non-profits make to social justice, by providing advocacy and essential services in health care, arts, education, advocacy and in many other areas. Service work is exemplified by students at Seton Hall who volunteer in communities to help advance society through innovative ways that bring students and community together. The symposium audience was treated to a video presentation by Dr. Jamila T. Davis, the community practitioner in residence at the CCRE. Davis shared her personal story of transformation and talked about the importance of community, giving back and coming together to make a difference. "MLK's dream," she said, "was that we would unite." Watch Dr. Davis' video message here.

Rounding out the day were presentations on peace and wellness by Juan Rios, Ph.D., and Anthony Nicotera, Ph.D., both of the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, Social Work and Criminal Justice. Nicotera spoke about MLK's connection to Thich Nhat Hahn, a Vietnam Zen master, who Dr. King nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967. "Their work to plant seeds of peace," he said, "helped bring an end to the Vietnam War." Professor Rios followed by imploring the audience to realize the importance of taking "micro steps" – smiling and saying good morning, for example – to advance peace and wellness in our world.

The final session of the day focused on what faculty are doing under the University's Strategic Plan to bring diversity, equity and inclusion into their curriculum. Introduced by Mary Balkun, Ph.D., Director of Faculty Development, were Dorothy Carolina, Ph.D., M.S.N., R.N. from the College of Nursing, Martin Edwards, Ph.D., representing the School of Diplomacy and International Relations, Amy Kline, Ed.D., of the College of Education and Human Services and Patrick Manning, Ph.D. of the Immaculate Conception Seminary and School of Theology.

The faculty panel spoke about how social justice is being addressed in academic areas. Dr. Carolina talked about how stereotypes and implicit biases impact the way Black Americans are treated in terms of health care. Dr. Edwards shared that the School of Diplomacy's subcommittees have been looking at what Seton Hall is doing to better represent the interests that speak to the diversity of the student body. Looking to the future, Dr. Kline, who works with aspiring teachers and counselors, noted the sense of responsibility that she and her colleagues feel toward making sure their students are prepared to advance social justice when they go out into the world. Patrick Manning, who chairs the DEI committee for the School of Theology, drew the formal presentations to a conclusion, saying that the work being done at the Seminary and around the University is part of the Catholic tradition and Jesus's ministry. By working for justice, he said, "we are participating in God's desire for the world."

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