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More of Us Should Have Been There

Dean Elmore reflects on the man who changed his life


On Sunday, Dean of Students Kenn Elmore was among the 10,000 people who came together on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to celebrate the dedication of the new national memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr. The dean reports on his experience below.

I made it and I was so happy that I had to call my parents. In the 1960s, they had made a long journey from debilitating racism in the South to a different set of struggles in Brooklyn. I had to let my folks know that I made it, I was safe, and I was there for them.

You should have been there to feel the power of the meet-up, revel in the music, and think together about the purpose. I sat with thousands of people on the Washington Mall. We had all come to celebrate the return of Martin Luther King, Jr. We were there for the dedication ceremony of the recently installed Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial and monument. I looked out at the crowd, listened to the music, and caught the spirit. It brought me to tears.

Why start my day at 5 a.m. for a good spot in a crowd to listen to speeches and music for four hours? How could I be moved by people I didn’t even know—especially a man I’d never met? Why travel such a long way for just a moment? One word: relevance.

More of us should have been there.

Kenneth Elmore, BU Dean of Students at the MLK Memorial dedication ceremony in Washington D.C.

Kenneth Elmore went to the dedication of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C., because he “wanted to be counted as one of Dr. King’s people, who still believe in his radical ideas: that we can be our best selves, that love is a real and can be a powerful strategy for change, that poverty is unacceptable, and that we can end war.” Photo by Raul Fernandez (COM’00)

I am a testament to the power of young people for change. Dr. King and young people gave me a world where I could thrive. I am a true descendant of the young women and young men who asked us: is this who we are? They were true democrats who fought, sat, sang, voted, carried signs, and stood their ground so I could get an education, live a middle-class life, and have control of my life. Dr. King and these young people knew how to rip, remix, and share the best of Truth’s truth, Lincoln’s words, Matthew’s stories, Thoreau’s lessons, and Gandhi’s soul. The old standards still hold lessons today. Dr. King dropped the baseline to occupy moments that continue to be sampled.

I was there because I wanted to be counted as one of Dr. King’s people, who still believe in his radical ideas: that we can be our best selves, that love is a real and can be a powerful strategy for change, that poverty is unacceptable, and that we can end war—ideas that we revisit often.

Every movement needs a few beats. On my train ride to D.C., I thought of the people who went to the March on Washington in 1963. Old-timers told me how they’d packed food and music. I made a playlist for the new journey: Marvin; Jackie Wilson; Erica Badu; the Roots; Public Enemy; the Clash; Pac; and Aretha. I was there to feel the music. Every American should stand in a crowd on the National Mall and sing. On Sunday, we stood together—touching—and sang the “National Anthem” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing” Many of us wept. It didn’t matter how we sounded; what mattered is that we were heard together. It sounded like celebration. It was collective joy. It sounded like pride—pride that my country made the choice to put a spotlight on its people via a tribute to Dr. King.

I needed to be at this dedication, standing near one of the places of Dr. King’s calling, for the moral significance. Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS’55, Hon.’59) was one of ours—a Terrier, an American, a person of the world. I have a privilege—to be dean of students at Martin Luther King, Jr.’s university. I owe Dr. King and plenty of young people along the way, many who were students at the time, my deep love and appreciation.

More of us should have been there. Next time, let’s go together.

Kenneth Elmore (SED’87) can be reached at kennmore@bu.edu.


26 Comments on More of Us Should Have Been There

  • Ian on 10.18.2011 at 5:46 am

    More of you should be in the streets fighting for change today. MLK is dead but his legacy lives on through struggle, not through dedicating some monument to him. His march in 1963 was not the end of his involvement, he died in 1968 while supporting workers on strike. The best way to support his legacy is by ending the massive exploitation of workers today, of the millions of black men in incarceration, of ending the ongoing US wars. Yes he talked about love and peace, but he also talked about direct action and the man was willing to break laws and get arrested to achieve change. That is the model we should be following.

    • Abram Trosky on 10.18.2011 at 11:54 am

      amen, ian. the best tribute is to gather where there are calls for justice — both in the sense of accountability for wall street fraud and other white collar crime AND in supporting the economic programs that help those hurt by inequality — and add ones voice. if you’re paying attention, you know where that gathering is. OCCUPY!

    • Gregory Tavares on 10.25.2011 at 11:28 am

      I fully agree with Ian. The reality of racial relations is that racism is “alive and well” in America. Further, it may not be as blatant, but truly exists. Truly the struggle continues! Systematically, oppression is still instituted and perpetuated. It truly perplexes this American man of African decent and Cabo Verde ethnicity that we as a society continue to dislike one another for various reasons. Further, the judicial system is a means of systematically “keeping them in their place!” Can I speak knowledgeably? Yes, I was there (alive) when the civil rights movement was in full swing; when the march on Washington occurred; and within the “belly of the beast!” Yes, I know first hand.

  • Katherine Kennedy on 10.18.2011 at 6:43 am

    Thank you Dean Elmore for bearing witness. I am proud to say that I was on the mall in 1963 and was sitting next to you on Sunday in 2011. You captured the moment, the mood and the significance of that historic day. To be in the midst of such a gathering of fellow human beings sharing collectively in the occasion, but more importantly realizing that each person was also having their own unique personal experience as well. In my personal experience years of a breaking barriers kept flooded my mind. Memories of sit-ins, bus rides, lynchings, beatings, hosings, singing and praying kept my face wet with tears throughout the dedication. It was truly glorious and I am proud to say that I was there .

  • Jess on 10.18.2011 at 7:54 am

    FYII President Lincoln was a Republican, not a democrat. I believe he was the one who ended slavery. Being republican does not mean one is a racist. Also being a “true democrat” does not mean you are a better person.

    • JMT on 10.18.2011 at 8:40 am

      He means ‘small-d democrat’ (“who fought, sat, sang, voted, carried signs, and stood their ground”)

    • Nathan on 10.18.2011 at 8:50 am

      If you are a “true democrat” then you believe in fairness. That makes you a “better person” than those who believe in racial unfairness, political unfairness, class unfairness, and other inequality.

      @ Jess – What brand of elitism and unfairness do you think makes you the equal of a “true democrat”?

      • jess on 10.21.2011 at 2:41 pm

        I am far from elite or unfair. I treat people of all colors with equal respect. In my undergraduate institution there were far more whites than minorities. I was friends with many minorities. And I often heard them complain that whites have it easier than blacks or Hispanics. Meanwhile most of my friends had lower high school GPA and SAT scores and got into a top 50 school. I was made fun of all my life for being pale. And I understand that many minorities feel the need to be “white”. But that is pressure that is put on themselves by themselves. Let’s stop making clubs strictly for minorities and make clubs that are for everyone and celebrate our differences. The only thing those clubs do is segregate everyone. Furthermore, although I am fair skinned, I am Italian. The whites that repressed blacks were WASPS. I am just overall tired of hearing whites have it easier than minorities and that I am racist based on my skin color.

    • Michael K on 10.18.2011 at 8:56 am

      Jess, you are correct but those are just semantics. The modern “Two-party system” did not exist during Lincoln’s time in the same way it exists today. In fact, Lincoln’s republican ideas were more in line with modern democrat ideas. However, you are right, being republican does not make one a racist.

    • Political Science on 10.18.2011 at 9:02 am

      That is democrat with a lower case “d”, not democrat with a capital “D” – there’s a difference


    • Parent on 10.18.2011 at 9:43 am

      Yeah – “democrat” and “republican” (lower case) were simple words before they were names of political parties, and they remain words today. Several online dictionaries I just checked define “democrat” (small “d”) as “a believer in democracy.” Simple enough. Dr. Elmore was not talking about a political party

  • Raul Fernandez on 10.18.2011 at 8:18 am

    “Dr. King dropped the baseline to occupy moments that continue to be sampled.” Well said. I too was honored to have been in the house to celebrate a man who lived before my time, yet who continues to inspire the movements of our time. And yet, I was just as proud to have joined our students in Dewey Square a couple of weeks back, and to have marched this weekend with folks from Occupy DC in McPherson Square. If you doubt somehow that that the Civil Rights and Occupy movements are connected, look no further than the MLK Memorial dedication speeches of Bernice King, Martin Luther King III, Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Rabbi Dresner and many others who expressed solidarity with the current movement. Bernice King’s message was particularly salient, noting that the rescheduled date (due to Hurricane Irene) allowed her to reflect on the Occupy movement and its connection to her fathers ideals. She inspired in me the following tweet: “@dosmanos: Impact of the #occupy movement on #dedicateMLK is astounding. This would be a very different event had it taken place in August.” If you’re on the fence about the movement, I truly encourage you to watch this weekend’s speeches for a bit of inspiration.

    • Nice personal plug... on 10.19.2011 at 9:03 am

      Lets not take something so special, the dedication of a monument to the life and contributions of King as a national and indeed World figure, and politicize it by throwing out occupy movement rhetoric. That movement which is more about personal aggrandizement and individual attention than actual effect and change. Thank you. Lets come down off the horse

  • Walter Earl Fluker on 10.18.2011 at 8:24 am

    Thank you, Ken. I am glad that I was there to bear witness and testify in body, however symbolic, to the powerful legacy of BU’s most important and most well-known alumnus. Where else could I have been when the world is asking again for a movement that dares to dream a new moment in which compassion and justice are the regulating ideals of power; and millions in our nation and around the globe seek fundamental human rights based on dignity and respect for all? Thank you for your witness and testimony! We are so proud of you!

  • Adam on 10.18.2011 at 9:06 am

    I’m a little confused by the “true democrats” statement. Did he mean people fighting for true democracy? Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor was a “true democrat” that unleashed fire hoses and K9 units. Let’s not forget that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (the version that passed) was a bipartisan effort that was filibustered by another “true democrat,” Robert Byrd. Stom Thurmond is another “true democrat” of that era that pops to mind. As long as race relations are viewed in such a partisan manner (as Dean Elmore is suggesting), King’s legacy will be tarnished. Let’s judge every man and woman by the content of their character as opposed to his or her political affiliation. I was there on Sunday. I am caucasian. I am a conservative. I am not a racist. If I was, I probably wouldn’t be teaching young black men and women in hopes of helping them lead successful, fulfilling lives.

  • Adam on 10.18.2011 at 9:09 am

    Perhaps the confusion is coming from “democrat” vs. “Democrat.”

    • Linda on 10.18.2011 at 9:28 am

      Adam, you are right. A democrat is a supporter or advocate of democracy. Not the Democratic Party. This is taught in most elementary schools,
      Why are some people so defensive?

  • Leighann on 10.18.2011 at 9:41 am

    many of the above comments indicated an underlying angst anger cynicism. MLK did not exhibit this kind of behavior and having been to the Promised Land and seen the mountain, he truly realized where our Help comes from. I still cry every time I hear his I Have a Dream speech, and I am well over 50 years old and have felt the full range of emotions, fear, anger, hope, excitement, sadness, joy when it comes to the causes of equality for all minorities. Violence takes many forms and wears many coats,hateful words, disrespectful gestures, devisive ignorance, and self centered, self righteous entitlement all at the expense of peace, love and harmony. Too many pundits are out there spouting and bloviating their ‘academic’ and ‘intelligent’ conclusions and have not felt the sting of injustice and have never truly served another human being in a selfless manner. Reach out and touch somebody’s hand and make this world a better place . . . if you can.

  • Tarif on 10.18.2011 at 10:05 am

    Dean Elmore,

    This was a very moving piece. I feel the resounding echo of Dr. King’s words constantly. It is very reassuring to be able to look to a man who had the courage to say what needed to be said, who held himself to a higher standard, who derived his authority not from his own opinion, but from a morality higher than himself.

    I followed your tweets Sunday and though I wasn’t there, I think felt some of that spirit you were talking about.

    I would love to be there next time to experience this.

  • Kara Jackman on 10.18.2011 at 10:13 am

    Dean Elmore, Thank you for attending this historic dedication. Your reflection on it was moving. Your words perfectly chosen. I hope to get to Washington to celebrate the new monument soon. in the meantime, please come to the School of Theology to see some great paintings of civil rights leaders and depictions of events as painted by Pamela Chatterton-Purdy, an artist from Cape Cod, Massachusetts. They are informative and inspiring. Thank you again for representing Terrier Nation!

  • Edi on 10.18.2011 at 10:14 am

    As a Peace Corps volunteer in the 70s, I taught the “I have a dream” speech to my Senegalese students–MLK inspired millions worldwide and his teachings still resonate today. This monument is long overdue, but I’m so glad it’s finally there as a reminder that we still have lots of work to do.

  • Ron on 10.18.2011 at 1:45 pm

    I appreciate your heart-felt reflection Dean Elmore. Thanks for sharing your thoughts…

  • Universities for Thought on 10.18.2011 at 3:43 pm

    Thank you for sharing this piece. My disclaimer to this comment is to reassure you that I, too, am a fan of Martin Luther King Jr. However, as a BU alum, I’ve always been concerned with our idolization of King. Only recently (within the past two years) has the Howard Gotlieb research center decided to reveal that MLK Jr., too, was human and had flaws. We spend so (and perhaps too) much time paying tribute to his legacy rather than really…and I mean really Actively recognizing that the struggle in America is perhaps more pervasive now more than ever. Yes, Ian and Abram, Occupy Wall St. is one opportunity to demonstrate that. I thank our policy makers for introducing white middle-income America to our oldest friend, poverty. For if it were not for this introduction, but where else would we all stand together and protest in succinct harmonies? Did you know the faculty from the New School in New York have signed a doctrine in support of OWS and have actively participated in marching to the streets to join the young, old, educated and otherwise to take a stance? Wouldn’t one think that a University that proudly claims Martin Luther King, Jr. as their alumnus would follow in his footsteps?

    Racial injustices in America should be quite familiar with any BU student, after all Comm Ave is sticken with a lack of (happy) Black and Latino faces: thus the contemporary Black narrative in Boston. Black voices/advocates for civil rights on BU’s campus and Boston are relegated to MLK Jr’s political philosophy. Yes, Thurman and Ghandi (who arguably fall under the same civil rights school of thought) are also celebrated, but as an Academic institution why do we not recognize that in order to effect change we must consider the remarkable work of ALL leaders? Should we not encourage (gasp) dialogue about varying approaches? Is Chomsky, as real as it gets? Do we not bare this social and intellectual responsibility? Did Malcolm X not reside in Roxbury Boston? Oops, I should know better than to raise his name during a celebration of King’s work after all there are plenty of opportunities to celebrate Malcolm’s work…. at Roxbury Community College.

    This is not a critique of King, rather our way of “celebrating” his legacy. It’s unfortunate my only opportunity to do so is through anonymity and once I’ve left campus…and yes of course during quite a remarkable historic celebration.

    I, too, should have been there. But since I can’t make it, I’ll walk over to Wall St.

  • Roland on 10.19.2011 at 2:22 am

    “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
    _Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

    My favorite quote! But, here, our lives end when we break that silence…What a peculiar democracy!

  • David Janey on 10.19.2011 at 3:50 am

    @Raul: thanks for connecting the dots from MLK to Occupy. As a child I marched with MLK in Boston, last week I stood in Dewey Sq with Occupy Boston and in between I’ve protested war and injustice many times. Memorialize but do not mainstream MLK. His message was and remains fundamentally radical. If MLK had survived, he would be 100% with the 99%.

  • richard w guerra on 10.21.2011 at 2:00 pm

    Infinite Hope”

    how much do I miss
    the ole Be U.
    the realm of King
    … reverence for the reverend felt perpetual
    His footsteps did March
    upon the red steps of Marsh
    what sensations alike have we felt
    peering down our own Commonwealth?

    I can see Student Union
    and shiny soulful Elmore
    proudly preparing for
    the dedication of the memorial
    48 years to the day
    of equality’s brightest moment.
    The Howard Thurman Center abuzz
    with blessings delivered above
    from His pulpit of just love .

    I know now what he meant
    about steadfast hope eternal
    against infinite disappointment
    and I have a few dreams too
    and a difference left to
    make shape mold forge and do


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