Episode 17: Martin Luther King Legacy

This episode we're speaking with Chief Diversity Officer Dr. Schvalla Rivera about Dr. Martin Luther King. We celebrate his legacy and the important work that he did and continues to be done in his name.

Full Transcript

Steve Meredith: Hello again, everyone, and welcome to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring President Scott L Wyatt of Southern Utah University. I’m your host, Steve Meredith, and I am joined again as usual by President Wyatt. Good morning, Scott.

Scott Wyatt: Good morning, Steve. This is a nice day.

Meredith: It’s a beautiful day, and, as always, we’re glad to be here in Cedar City but we’re especially glad to be here today on a happy but also sadly poignant day as we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. We, along with the rest of the world, we celebrate his legacy and the important work that he did and continues to be done in his name. We have a special guest joining us in-studio today, and President, I’ll let you go ahead and introduce her and we’ll look forward to hearing from her.

Wyatt: Yeah, it’s nice to have Dr. Schvalla Rivera here today with us. Schvalla, thanks for joining us this morning.

Schvalla Rivera: Thank you, President Wyatt. I truly appreciate being here. Thank you.

Wyatt: Now, this is good. So Schvalla is our Chief Diversity Officer. She works in my suite and helps us as we focus on all of these really important issues today, and it’s our honor to have her here helping us talk about the legacy of Martin Luther King.

Meredith: Welcome.

Rivera: Thank you, it’s great to be here. I’m excited about the topic and excited to share.

Wyatt: So why don’t we get started? Schvalla, why don’t you tell us something about what you think is the greatest legacy of Dr. King?

Rivera: Wow, there’s so much. He accomplished so much in his short 38 years to talk about, but I believe that what is important as an educator are the things that he spoke about towards education, on the topics of education and also continuing the struggle for freedom and equality and equity for everyone. So, I think that those topics are all intertwined and he wove them together in such a wonderful way with his words.

Wyatt: Yeah. So it’s interesting, he didn’t start out as a “late bloomer”, did he?

Rivera: No, he didn’t. [All laugh] He actually, I believe he started Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, which is a historically black university and it’s an all-male college. And he started Morehouse College when he was 15 or 16 years old and graduated at the age of 18.

Meredith: Wow.

Wyatt: And then it was about at the age of 18 that he wrote one of the really impressive pieces of his life, which was a speech on the purpose of education.

Rivera: Yes. Would you like to discuss that?

Wyatt: Yeah, I really like this. He wrote this to the student newspaper, and in that, he wrote that the purpose of a true education is “intelligence plus character.” And he spent a bit of time talking about how education has two purposes. One is a utilitarian purpose, which is preparing us for careers. And then the other purpose is to develop character. He referred to it as culture and we can be very intelligent and do a lot of harm in the world.

Rivera: Yes. He spoke a lot about sincere ignorance, and he also said, “conscientious stupidity.” [All laugh]
He said those are two dangerous things in the world is sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity. One we can work with—sincere ignorance, you don’t know what you don’t know and that’s just the basic meaning of ignorance, but when it comes from a place of sincerity, usually people are willing to talk and engage or at least consider something else. But conscientious stupidity means that you are making a decision to live in error or to believe untruths or misinformation, so that’s very dangerous. I think we see a lot of that…that’s very fitting for our current climate as well.

Wyatt: Yeah, and if we look at our role in education, we shouldn’t ever feel badly when someone comes to a university sincerely ignorant. In fact, we want to fill our buildings with those kinds of people.

Rivera: Yes.

Wyatt: That’s our goal, right? Is to educate? And we want people to come that need educating. [Laughter]

Rivera: Yes, open minds and open hearts—those are what we need. We’re all ignorant about something. We don’t know everything, but if we approach everything with sincerity, then we can hopefully humbly come to knowledge which is the goal of education.

Wyatt: Yeah. So he wrote this article to his university student newspaper in 1947, and it’s a great read. I think that everyone in higher education ought to read this. The dual purpose of both utility and culture helping us prepare…and then there are some other, if we move further into his life, there are some other really neat addresses that he’s made.

Rivera: Mhmm.

Wyatt: Or messages that he’s left for our day.

Rivera: Definitely. I love…I spoke a little bit at our past MLK celebration we had on campus, one of his quotes was, “Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness.” And that means that we give to each other and we set aside our personal needs for the needs of the community and we come together. So a little bit of that willingness to give is very important, so that’s a quote that I love.

Wyatt: Those are interesting words put together.

Rivera: “Dangerous” and “unselfishness.” You know, when I first read that, I thought, “Oh wow, dangerously unselfish…” And just rolling that around in my mind. And it can be, especially when we live in a society that tells you that “You need more, more is better.”

Wyatt: Yeah. Dangerously unselfish. He was certainly unselfish in his life, and he certainly lived a dangerous life, but not because he was dangerous in the sense of violent. He was dangerous in the sense that he was always doing some peaceful protest or saying how he felt to those who felt threatened by it and threatened him back.

Rivera: Yes, speaking truth to power is dangerous. It is scary for those individuals who are in power to change culture, to challenge culture. To challenge a way of thinking is dangerous, but it is necessary. It can be scary, but from that comes good things, and I believe that Dr. King’s legacy reflects that.

Wyatt: Yeah. There’s a great speech that he gave, it’s a sermon, in 1957 where it’s a sermon on love. And I think this one is applicable today as anything that we could find. He talked a lot about what Christ had to say about love, loving your enemies, but the quote from this that stands today so well is the quote about, “darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.”

Rivera: Yes.

Wyatt: “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” That’s an interesting perspective. Schvalla, how do you think that Dr. King would respond today to those who are, I guess I would say, returning hate for hate.

Meredith: There’s certainly a lot of that.

Wyatt: Yeah, or shaming those who they think are less for some reason or shaming those who are saying things that are hurtful.

Rivera: I think that he would handle it the same way that he handled it in his day. I think he would do two things. First, he would call out the behavior that is being questioned as far as societal problems—racism, bigotry, sexism, all of those things—he would definitely call those out. But he would also admonish and encourage individuals who want to fight for justice to exercise love and to show love and patience. That doesn’t mean to be silent, that doesn’t mean to be weak. To show love in the face of hate is one of the greatest strengths that any of us can possess and also demonstrate to the world. So to be able to sit in front of people who are calling you names or hosing you down with water hoses and things like that and to stand. To stand your ground and to still reflect love, but also pride and dignity. I think those are the things that he would say. You don’t have to reflect that hate back. It’s counterproductive, it allows people to get off the message because then they focus on, “Oh, well if you care about justice, then how can you say that back in return?” And it allows people to change the conversation. When you operate in love, you operate outside of yourself. You operate for the greater good, and you stay on message. So I think that’s what Dr. King would focus on and say.

Wyatt: Yeah. Well, and in that sermon, he talked about sayings that Christ made—of course, Dr. King was a reverend, so that was his orientation—and as Christ said, anybody can love a friend. It takes a little bit of effort to love an enemy.

Rivera: It does.

Wyatt: And that was part of Dr. King’s message, was anybody can love a friend. Anybody can hate hate, but it takes a strong, solid person to be able to return love to hate.

Rivera: Well, the Bible does say what reward is there in only loving—like you said—only loving those who love you back? That’s something that you can count on, not to discount that because it’s important, but you’ve already got that. You’re not venturing out, you’re not challenging anything. But to love those who despise you, to love those who don’t want you to be free, there is…you gain something, especially if you change even one mind, you’ve just gained something. And so I think that being able to hold to those truths, to those fundamental values of Christ is very important.

Wyatt: So his message here was really insightful about human nature. That the best way, actually, to persuade somebody or to accomplish your goals is to do it gently.

Rivera: Mhmm.

Meredith: Now, perhaps the part of the message that is the most lost today is that there’s very little gentility in any messaging that almost does anymore. Perhaps, in my mind, that might be one of his greatest legacies is that he accomplished so much, but he did it so beautifully and so kindly that when people reflect back on it, it’s just still remarkable. And I think it’s one of the things that drew so many millions of people of every background and every persuasion and every color to Dr. King’s message, was that it was a message of love and redemption and kindness.

Wyatt: Yeah. What I see today so much in dialogue is that when two people are arguing about a disagreement, if one isn’t succeeding, that person frequently moves from the area of disagreement to criticizing the person. We move from the topic to the person. “I can’t win on the issue, so now I’m going to start shaming you or criticizing you individually.” You see that so much, and what I take from Dr. King’s message is, “That never works.” [All laugh]

Rivera: No, it definitely doesn’t.

Meredith: It ratchets up the tension.

Rivera: It does, no one is going to accomplish anything in an atmosphere like that. And I think that we have to be intelligent enough, we have to be intellectual enough and also emotionally intelligent enough—which is something that Dr. King talked about but now we call it “emotional intelligence”—but to see past that. To see past the smoke and mirrors and stay on message. Stay on message. We don’t attack the person. We can attack ideas, we can attack thoughts, we can challenge thoughts—and that’s a good thing, iron sharpens iron—but we don’t attack the person and who they are. That’s a reflection on our character when we do that.

Meredith: And probably highly important to those of us in higher education, we get young people who have all sorts of interesting ideas and backgrounds and perceptions, and to help them think through those things is a lot of what we’re about here.

Wyatt: Yeah, and we actually want them to say it so we can figure out who’s got what ideas in their head so that we can help people think through it.

Rivera: Right. I actually encourage everyone to say what it is that you want to say. I believe in respect, but I believe in, “Don’t do it anonymously.” If you have something you want to say, if you want to criticize someone no matter what position you are in the community or whether you’re student, faculty, or staff, don’t hide. Say what it is you have to say so that we can have a conversation about it. If your goal is truly to seek knowledge, then you ask. If the goal is to rile people up, then we go to tweeting and assassinating individuals characters and things like that, but we are…we should be an educated society. We should engage in civil discourse, and I would love to see us have civil discourse days or hours where we can come together and talk about topics freely. Because how are we supposed to learn if we can’t ask? If we don’t trust each other enough that we can make mistakes in front of each other and also trust that we will receive compassion and understanding in return, I think that we’ve kind of strayed from where we’re supposed to be.

Wyatt: So let’s talk about his most famous speech for just a minute. “I Have a Dream.”

Rivera: Yes.

Wyatt: So why don’t you say something to us about that? Tell us something about that speech?

Rivera: Well, I think that it was extremely poignant. It happened in Washington, D.C. at Monument Mall, and there were hundreds of thousands of people there, so I can only imagine what it felt like to be there and hear those words resounding. But he talked about his dream of all of us living together in peace. When he spoke about dreams, I believe that he spoke about the doing of dreams—not just being asleep and fantasizing—because to him, it wasn’t just a fantasy, it was something that he envisioned and made strides to accomplish. So in his mind, it was already done. And you’ll kind of see or experience in his final speech the mountaintop speech where he actually feels that he’s been there and he reveals that he has seen it and believes in his heart that it’s going to happen. So in the “I Have a Dream” speech, he talked a lot about character and hope and faith in each other and living together and working together, so I think that those are the ideas and the ideals that he lived and I hope that we can get there. It’s hopeful yet kind of sad that we’re still saying, “We hope we get there.” But I do believe as long as there’s life, there’s hope. So we are better than we were, but we can always be better. Let’s challenge each other to do better. Let’s challenge ourselves every day to do better. “OK, maybe you made a mistake yesterday, but today is a new day. Do better.”

Meredith: Right.

Rivera: Dream more.

Wyatt: It seems to me that the founding document of this Government, the United States Government, was the Declaration of Independence.

Rivera: Yes.

Wyatt: And the Declaration of Independence talks about inalienable rights and equality. That’s been the theme from day one that we’ve been struggling to fulfill. And we see that theme throughout the last more than 200 years. We saw the contributions that many people have made to that theme. Abraham Lincoln, certainly Martin Luther King was a major contributor, and I have to believe we’re in such a better place today than we’ve been so many times in the past. But it’s sad that we’re in such a divisive time right now. The progress forward is not a straight line.

Rivera: It’s cyclical.

Wyatt: Yeah, it’s up and down and back a couple of steps and forward a few steps and I think most people would agree that we’ve stepped back a step in the last couple of years and it’s good to pause for a few minutes and remember some of these great leaders and their messages and what our goal is in life. To seek continually after equality.

Rivera: Yes, I definitely agree with that. I think that we have such goodness here in our country, such goodness in our people here, but we have things that we have not overcome. And we keep, like you just mentioned, we have had setbacks. I think that those setbacks occur when we forget our history, when we forget the struggle, when we don’t remember the Rosa Parks, the Martin Luther Kings, the Ida B. Wells, when we don’t remember Abraham Lincoln, when we don’t remember the blood that was shed so that we could have our freedoms. When we don’t appreciate that, we are doomed to repeat our mistakes. And so I think that after, well, the civil rights movement continues, but there came a point where people thought that they had reached the mountaintop and they forgot to pass on that message to the next generation. And the next generation didn’t pass on that message to their children, and so we see that now. We see that. We’ve fallen asleep, and I think that we should wake up.

Wyatt: Yeah, and I’m looking forward to the time that someone runs for Congress and says, “I’m not going to say anything negative about my opponent or the other party. Because for me to be successful, I have to work with them, and to insult them right up front is going to make it harder.” [All laugh] And we just become more divided. Well this is April 2, and on April 3 was the mountaintop speech where Martin Luther King pretty much predicted his assassination.

Rivera: He did. He did, he said that his eyes have seen the glory and he may not make it there with us, but he said that he sees it, that he saw it and he’s happy for it. And it’s very sad that the next evening he was killed. On April 4, 1968 at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. The hotel is now the National Civil Rights Museum, so you can go explore the hotel and I encourage anyone who hasn’t been to check it out and step on those hallowed grounds.

Meredith: It’s a beautiful monument.

Rivera: It is. And if you haven’t gone to see Dr. King’s monument in Washington, D.C., I encourage you to do that as well.

Meredith: You’ve been listening to Solutions for Higher Education, with Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University, and Dr. Schvalla Rivera, our special guest. We’ll be back again soon. Thanks for listening, bye bye.