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Georgetown Community Reflects on Legacy of Martin Luther King in Higher Education at Virtual Teach-In

By: Henry D. Brill

January 14, 2022

What does the “I Have a Dream” speech by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., mean for higher education today? This was the question at the center of the 2022 Teach the Speech teach-in, which brought together Georgetown students, faculty, and staff for dialogue around education and racial justice.

Each year, Teach the Speech, convened as part of the annual MLK: Let Freedom Ring! Initiative, invites members of the Georgetown community to reflect on a speech by Dr. King. The teach-in, which included a virtual community gathering, opens up critical space for challenging conversations around diversity and inclusivity on campus. 

This year, the teach-in featured a student reflection from Veronica Williams (C’23) and two keynotes from Virginia State Senator Jennifer McClellan and Neonu Jewell (L’04) of the African American Policy Forum. Community members then participated in a Q&A with the speakers, facilitated by Ijeoma Njaka (G’19) of Georgetown’s Red House and Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics. 

Teach the Speech is co-hosted by the Doyle Engaging Difference Program, as part of its mission to support innovative learning experiences that equip Georgetown students and faculty to authentically and constructively engage differences inside and outside the classroom.

Dreaming for Change

Williams, an American studies major, opened the conversation by reflecting on the core message of the “I Have a Dream Speech,” delivered in 1963 during the March on Washington.

“With radical hope for the future and a never-ending fire and desire for freedom and justice in his heart, King paints a picture of an America where the American dream is for everybody,” explained Williams. 

Despite changes to American society since the 1960s, there remain a number of challenges to realizing a truly equitable country. According to Williams:

Progress has been made in the fight for racial justice, but as we reflect nearly 60 years after Dr. King stated ‘the Negro still is not free,’ in 2022 Black people are still not free from racism and discrimination in America.

Continued activism in the vein of Dr. King is where Williams finds hope for the future of racial justice.

“Dr. King having a dream and seeing it progress to becoming a reality inspires me to continue to dream, as there is power in dreaming,” says Williams. “To dream is to make sense of the past, take ownership of the future, and inspire action in the present.”

Radical Love

Sen. McClellan then provided the first keynote address, reflecting on how Dr. King called for a reckoning with U.S. history. 

“It’s important that we have a full and honest look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of this country—and that’s what Dr. King was doing in the March on Washington, taking people back to understand how this country was founded,” the senator explained. 

Approaching honest engagement with the U.S. past from a stance of radical love was a key theme in the life and work of Dr. King, according to Sen. McClellan: 

Remember that Dr. King, in the face of people twisted with hatred, looked at them and said, ‘I love you enough, and I’m going to make you see your better angels and make this a better country.’ That is how we will change the Beloved Community, together.

Dialogue grounded in our shared humanity, especially with ongoing polarization in the United States, can be an important tool toward realizing a more inclusive society, according to the panel.

“We as a country, we as a society are in dark times,” said Sen. McClellan. “We will not survive if we don’t focus on the inner humanity of each of us.”

Celebrating Difference

Jewell, a Ph.D. student at Union Theological Seminary, provided the second keynote address, exploring the ways in which some politicians have misappropriated the legacy of Dr. King. 

“Dr. King is not talking about color blindness—we all see color, we notice differences when we walk into a room,” said Jewell. “Living beings are diverse, and our nuances and differences should be centered and valued.” 

The classroom can be an important space to engage difference with the goal of effecting social change in the tradition of Dr. King, according to Jewell: 

Education builds character through critical thinking and engagement, learning about the past and reimagining the future. Good character equates to truth-telling, even and especially when it is difficult.

As the Georgetown community reflects on how to mobilize the legacy of Dr. King, increasing dialogue across lines of difference—the focus of the Doyle Program—can be a transformative step toward creating a more inclusive university. 

“The best way to transform how people experience one another is to be in direct relationship with one another,” Jewell explained in the Q&A session. “Fostering spaces that are truly inclusive and giving people more opportunities to get to know each other is critical for things being different in our society.”

Teach the Speech is co-hosted by the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship (CNDLS), the Center for Social Justice Research, Teaching and Service (CSJ), the Doyle Engaging Difference Program, and the Division of Student Affairs.