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In a letter to his children, titled “Back to the District and Still Kneeling at the Steps: A Letter to My Children on the 50th Anniversary of the Speech and 150 Years after the Emancipation Proclamation,” Dean of Students Kenneth Elmore (SED’87) reflects on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the questions that still confront us. “POV” is an opinion series that will provide thoughtful, timely commentaries from students, faculty, staff, and alumni on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international.

Dear Odessa and Elijah,

Fortunately, a few cameras caught and broadcast a powerful and young Martin Luther King, Jr., as he stood on the steps of an American landmark 50 years ago today to challenge a nation to be its best self. In a learned and down-home way, he dared us to live as free people within this country. Yet, I still wonder whether—50 years later—I am free in this society.

That speech was an invitation from King’s generation for me to be a baller—not with regard to money, but with blood and sweat—for the thought needed for justice in this century. I wanted to be a significant contributor to the thought and fight to build this country around big issues like individual well-being, health, job creation, cities and their prosperity, migration, food, security of one’s personal existence, engaging a country’s youth, equality for all people, dealing with the other, and human dignity. I am sorry to say that I have been so caught up in living that I haven’t put in the work needed to answer that generation’s challenge. I am sorry.

Don’t let me get away with saying that there has been no progress in the last 50 years. But this summer has left a feeling in my gut that like the songs that are playing over and over on the airwaves this summer, we’ve gone retro when it comes to racial justice in this society. When I read the Supreme Court’s latest hit on the country’s moral obligation to black folks and in my discussions about another “justified” killing of a young black person, I couldn’t help but question whether our “good society” is now showing more subtle signs of moral ugliness.

On August 28, 1963, BU alumnus Martin Luther King, Jr., had a “drop the mic” moment as the final speaker during the March on Washington. So, as we make the journey back to Washington, D.C.—actual, in spirit, and as a metaphor—there are questions that seem to come up again and again. I challenge you to answer them.

  • Law is important to the ordered society, but should we continue to let lawyers alone deal with deep moral issues like the society we want to see?
  • Beyond that which is casual, do we know each other?
  • What do you know to be true?
  • What should we allow as personal responses to conflict and even violence?
  • Where do you spend your time and money? What institutions and organizations do you support?
  • Do you take the time to talk about why you do the things you do and to understand why others might have objections?
  • Are you willing to let experts tell you how you feel and what you should think?
  • What are you blind to?
  • Are you even aware of the myths, rites, emotional configurations, and symbols that function in your life each day?

I am witness to King’s love. I am also a direct beneficiary of the lasting fights. Selfishly, at best, I have cherry-picked the ideas that work for us. I have also spent most of my life as a careful observer instead of paying back. Don’t take my lead of active uninvolvement. Don’t let living take you off the course of helping others to live free. Don’t rest within what King described as the “appalling silence” of the good folk.

We need to celebrate a 50-year-old speech, but we also need to move faster.

Much strength to you as you go forward. With all of my love, peace, and happiness,