To mark the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. and Black History Month each year, educators give lectures and assignments to their students about King and the civil rights movement. But nearly 50 years after King's death, it becomes more difficult for students to connect with him and his teachings.
At the University of North Georgia (UNG), the Office for Multicultural Students Affairs (MSA) aims to keep King's legacy relevant to students with programs that help them translate his message to current issues.
"King would admire the progress we have made on social justice issues such as racial and gender equality," MSA Director Robert Robinson said. "He would be pleased to see that we have an African-American president, and women serving in roles alongside men. But he would also see the work still needed on those issues and many others, such as immigration reform and human trafficking."
MSA is working to keep students focused by facilitating discussion about the progress made on the issues of King's time, and examining what King might view as today's most-pressing issues.
"Students have a general concept of what Dr. King advocated for during the civil rights era of the '60s. Generally, many think more about race, but Dr. King was advocating for equality for all Americans," said Robert Bryant, MSA coordinator for UNG's Dahlonega Campus. "Contemporary issues still link back to King's message, given the inequality still existing throughout the world. Human trafficking, racism, pay inequality for women and other problems are all issues that plague society."
Together with the Department of Communication, Media & Journalism, MSA held oratorical contests on UNG's Dahlonega and Gainesville campuses, inviting students to present their views on which social justice issues they feel King would be focused upon if he were alive today.
"With the oratorical contests, we were also trying to demonstrate how King empowered young people to take charge in their country," Robertson said. "Everyone had an opportunity to discuss what they feel social justice is, and what they feel are today's biggest issues. This was about changing America through voicing your opinions."
Maria Palacios, a senior finance major and winner of the Gainesville Campus contest, felt that King would have acknowledged the improvements in civil rights and taken further steps to ensure the equality of all society. Ruthanne Conner, a junior English education major and winner of the Dahlonega Campus contest spoke about how King would be fighting against human trafficking, or "modern slavery," saying he would be working to give a voice to those who have none.
Bryant said the contests were one of many opportunities presented by MSA to help students become "change agents." Without students learning about these harsh realities, we face potential erosion from the progress we have made, he said.
"It's also very important for each generation to understand there are peaceful ways to generate change," Robertson said. "King himself advocated for non-violent approaches. Our students must know there is a way to change America through nonviolence."