Campus leaders discuss MLK’s impact on them, society

Posted on Apr 5 2018 - 5:57am by Emily Hoffman and Kimberly Russell

Donald Cole: Assistant provost, assistant to the chancellor for multicultural affairs and associate professor of mathematics

Q: How have the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, death and legacy shaped your world?

Donald Cole

Donald Cole

A: MLK has been the standard by which my life has been guided. He appealed to my parents as a leader – something that all parents want of their children. Because my parents were fairly religious, MLK’s ministry appealed to them, and consequently, they had high moral expectations of me. MLK was educated and a dynamic speaker, and education was of paramount importance to my family. So when I say that MLK served as a standard, I say so in a literal sense.

Q: Where were you when King was assassinated? What do you remember about it? Did your parents or family tell you anything about the assassination?

A: There are certain occurrences in life that are so important that they literally define portions of one’s life. The assassination of MLK was one such occurrence in my life. That day in April of 1968, I was a senior in high school on a college visit. During the visit, I didn’t hear of the assassination, and upon returning home, my mother asked about my visit, but before I could answer, she told me about the assassination. The excitement and eagerness of the visit immediately left me as I could clearly see part of my mother has also been assassinated. She recounted as much as she could about what she had heard from news sources, but I was stuck in between  “unbelief” and “why?” I don’t remember much more about our conversation, just that something significant had happened and a sense of perplexity about how this might possibly change my life.

Q: What do you want students to understand about King’s life, death and legacy?

A: The educational system in the U.S. is designed to make assassinations a foreign concept here in America. We learn not to physically fight, destroy property or to assassinate. We teach (and learn) to fight with reason and research, with better arguments and more logical reasoning. We offer convincing rhetoric and investigative persuasion. Medgar Evers, another person assassinated, once said, “You can kill a man, but you can’t kill an idea.” I’d like our students to know about the enormous impact that Dr. MLK had on the world, the U.S., Mississippi and, in particular, the University of Mississippi. His legacy affected the very canon of the university: what we teach, how we teach it and who delivers the message. Moreover, his legacy is still affecting the future canon of the university. I’d like our students to understand the value of an education and the quality of education that they are receiving here, and the legacy of Dr. King helps defines the high quality of their education. It is rare that such an individual comes along.

Q: How did King’s assassination impact the different communities in America?

A: The black community was affected like no other community with the assassination of Dr. King. It was devastated by Dr. King’s death, and for a while, it appeared that all the lights in that community were darkened to never glow again. However, the black community learned valuable lessons from his death. Instead of one or two gigantic leaders like Dr. MLK, the community grew thousands of sizable leaders so that the assassination of one would never have the same decimating effect.


Marvin King: Associate professor of political science

Q: How have the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, death and legacy shaped your world?

Marvin King

A: MLK’s life shaped my world and everybody’s world, whether we are aware of it or not – whether we want to acknowledge it or not. MLK changed what we know about social movements, changed American racial dynamics and made what was once thought impossible not only possible but the reality. His accomplishments are unique, historical and profound. His legacy cannot be overstated.

Q: What do you want students to understand about King’s life, death and legacy?

A: American politics is nothing but a pendulum, change followed by countervailing forces. MLK pushed and pushed for change. Racial conservatives believed he wanted too much too fast, and he was killed for wanting what we now consider normal and just. His life and death is the story of America.

Q: Are there goals that King wanted to see fulfilled that still aren’t?

A: His goals are nowhere near fulfilled. MLK once said, “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” While laws are race-neutral, moving toward justice, the reality is that political and policy outcomes are nowhere near race-neutral; changing laws doesn’t change people’s attitudes. I imagine MLK would be proud that people still fight for justice, but he would be equally sad that the fight is still such a crushing necessity.

Q: How did King’s assassination impact the black community?

A: At the time of his assassination, black America felt like its soul was crushed. The response was rioting and bitterness. Today, given the state of racial tensions and that race is still a visible dividing line in housing, education and politics, it just simply means that MLK’s work is not close to done. Not close.


Kirk Johnson: Associate professor of sociology and African-American studies

Q: Did Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, death and legacy affect your life in any way?

Kirk Johnson

A: I was a 13-year-old Army brat living in Turkey when Dr. King’s death hit the news. At the time, the assassination felt cataclysmic but distant, like a far-off explosion. Only as an adult, working on the production team for the PBS documentary “Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years” did I come to really appreciate Dr. King’s revelation that racism, capitalism, imperialism and colonialism are all linked. I think Dr. King had a particular genius for seeing that racial justice also means economic, social and political justice. That’s how he has shaped my world in and out of the classroom.

Q: Could you give historical context to how he was treated while he was alive?

A: It was a curious mix, at least at the federal level. Federal officials lionized him in public; after all, he had won international acclaim as the youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize. But many officials saw him as a threat to the social order, and behind the scenes, they tried everything they could to undercut him. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover famously labeled him a communist, wiretapped his phone and told his wife about his extramarital affairs in an attempt to silence him and undermine his moral authority.

Q: How do you think his assassination emotionally shaped our nation and communities?

A: I feel that the assassination planted a seed of dread inside the hearts of people who have high hopes for leaders who are thoughtful and charismatic. There wasn’t a day during President Obama’s 2008 campaign when I didn’t fear an attempt on his life.

Q: Do you think King’s assassination impacted the black community differently than other communities?

A: I do think there’s an air of fatalism in much of the black community, just as in the Jewish and other communities, that suggests that we have so many stressors and downward social forces to contend with that we might just not overcome. I wouldn’t be surprised if Dr. King’s assassination heightened that sense of foreboding, just as the Obama presidency undoubtedly lifted it.


Nekkita Beans: Senior social work major and Black Student Union president

Q: How have Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, death and legacy shaped your world?

Nekkita Beans

A: The legacy that Martin Luther King Jr. has left shaped my views on activism as a whole. Society will tell you that the only way to get your point across is to scream or yell; society says that you have to be the loudest. Martin Luther King Jr.’s  legacy and work say otherwise. Dr. King has taught me that it is important to not lose your message in the midst of chaos. From him I have learned the importance of being a versatile leader, that leadership is not only about doing – it is about teaching so that others will gain the tools to build upon the work that is being done.

Q: What did your family tell you about King’s assassination?

A: Members of my family not only marched with Dr. King when he marched through my hometown of Philadelphia, Mississippi, but they were victims and witnesses of cowardly Klansmen riding the streets with bats wrapped in barbed wire. My grandfather, who grew up in the height of the civil rights movement, who witnessed both the rise and assassination of Dr. King, has always reminded me that it is important to have strong beliefs and to remain grounded, no matter what. He always told me that there will be people in the world who will do anything to remove you from your purpose.

Q: What parts of King’s vision do you think are still strong today?

A: I believe Dr. King’s vision of “each one teach one” is still very much alive today, especially on college campuses. Dr. King never sent his people out in the trenches without training. This year, the Black Student Union teamed up with the NAACP to have an event to teach students the importance of activism and how to organize in a manner that is effective and safe.

Q: What are things that we could be doing to honor his legacy now?

A: I believe that having dialogues around hard topics would promote his legacy.