BU Today

Opinion

POV: Dean Elmore on MLK and 50th Anniversary of March on Washington

Challenges his children to answer questions that still remain

13

Today BU Today launches a new addition to our site, an opinion page called “POV” that will provide thoughtful, timely commentaries from students, faculty, staff, and alumni on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. We invite anyone interested in submitting a “POV” commentary to contact Rich Barlow at barlowr@bu.edu. Pieces should be about 700 words long. Please attach a high-resolution photo of yourself to run with the piece.

Our first “POV” is from Dean of Students Kenneth Elmore (SED’87). 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,” Elmore reflects on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the questions that still confront us.

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,

Dad

Dean of Students Kenneth Elmore can be reached at kennmore@bu.edu.

13 Comments

13 Comments on POV: Dean Elmore on MLK and 50th Anniversary of March on Washington

  • Pauline Jennett on 08.28.2013 at 5:29 am

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments and encouragement for each of us to do more than the prior generation in active community and civil involvement.
    Pauline, STH ’05

  • Megan Sullivan on 08.28.2013 at 7:26 am

    Beautifully done!

  • Sophie on 08.28.2013 at 8:09 am

    It’s an honor to know you, Dean Elmore.

  • Nancy on 08.28.2013 at 8:16 am

    A powerful Letter to our Children for all of us.

  • Carren on 08.28.2013 at 9:17 am

    Kenn, While I appreciate your candor, and agree there is more work to do, I disagree with you. As a parent, I understand the feeling that there is more I should be doing to shape the minds and lives of my children, and I often feel I fall short in that regard, but consider all the children that are not biologically yours that you have reached? How can you say you have been actively uninvolved? Maybe you were not preaching from the roof tops, or posting Youtube speeches followed by thousands, but you have been working tirelessly for the 25+ years I have known you to spread the idea of justice, freedom, and equality. Hundreds of SAs and RAs have listened and participated in training sessions revolving around treating people by the quality of their character. Those SAs and RAs are now parents and are continuing the cycle of “appreciating differences.” So, maybe you feel like you could be doing more, you are an over-achiever, but I give you credit for the strides you have made and the people you have inspired through the years. It makes a bigger impact than you realize.

  • Bruce J. on 08.28.2013 at 9:20 am

    Important questions that I plan to share with my own children. Kenn’s letter is a very helpful response to Dr. King’s invitation.

  • S. Lee MTS/MSW'85 on 08.28.2013 at 9:24 am

    Thank you for this powerful and thought provoking letter!

  • Danielle Dugan, CAS 00, SED 08 on 08.28.2013 at 9:25 am

    I would argue with the statement that “I have also spent most of my life as a careful observer instead of paying back.” As a teacher – formally and informally – you have challenged your students and your colleagues to think more deeply about the world around them, including issues of race and other civil rights. That is a form of paying it back.

    Not all action is measured in tangible units of work that can be checked off a list as “done.” As MLK, Jr. and his successors have illustrated, the work of the civil rights movement won’t be “done” anytime soon. But starting or furthering individual and small group conversations is as important as attending marches or making public speeches.

    Not to say that there’s no more that you can do. There is much more to be done, and you can do more. You wouldn’t be the Kenn Elmore that I know if you didn’t feel that way!

  • Nick on 08.28.2013 at 10:46 am

    As dean of the school that helped shape the mind of Dr. King, you certainly have not been an inactive spectator as you describe. Judging from previous comments and what I know about you as an incoming Freshman, you have helped thousands of people and their children grow to become more tolerant of others, more aware of current issues and become better people in general. I am looking forward to joining the BU community this Saturday!

  • Helen, CAS 15 on 08.28.2013 at 11:52 am

    Last night I watched the documentary ‘Soundtrack for a Revolution’ which is all about Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement and the role of music in nonviolent protest. I agree strongly with the sentiment in this letter that our social justice has gone retro, indeed this summer has seemingly taken appalling steps backwards in terms of civil rights. In the documentary, there was one scene where black people were practicing sit ins and they had a white man come in to act as a white police officer. The white man playing his role, had said, “Excuse me sir, you cannot sit here please, it is against the law.” The black people then laughed and said that there was no way a white southern police man would ever use the words ‘please’ or ‘sir’, and the next scene just showed footage of the black people acting as the white police officers, harshly throwing around the ‘n’ word. In comparison to what society is today, with a constant debate of whether or not it is okay to use the ‘n’ word, it really feels cringe worthy, as if we could have fallen into a frightening amount of ignorance to forget the amount of unjust bloodshed and massive amounts of mental trauma that ensued in the past. Our society today harps on being progressive and forward, but to move into a future without considering the past is just to make mistakes again and again.

  • Linda j on 08.28.2013 at 4:14 pm

    As parents you have challenged us to live better… Give more… Sacrifice often…love purely and seek understanding. Well said. You spoke to our growing apathy. Thank you for the challenge. I needed a wake up call!

  • Tanya on 08.28.2013 at 6:10 pm

    As a longtime member of the BU community through undergrad and two grad schools, to me, you have always stood as one of the brightest and best beacons of what BU is capable of and what it stands for. While there is always work to be done, do not underestimate your impact on the BU students and all of those that the BU community then have an impact upon. You are someone to respect and admire for creating positive change in your corner of the world. Thank you for pushing my sadly apathetic generation to do something about the injustices that we encounter.

  • Margaret Ross on 08.28.2013 at 7:15 pm

    An inspiration to us all, Dean Elmore. It is an honor to know and work with you.

Post Your Comment

(never shown)