category: President's Blog

January 2021: Gardner-Webb University Celebrates Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

January 2021 President's Blog Image

President Ronald Reagan signed the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day federal holiday into law in 1983, with its first observation occurring in 1986.  Now celebrated on the third Monday of January each year, MLK Day encourages all Americans to pause and reflect on a man who gave his life in the promotion of civil and human rights.  At Gardner-Webb University we, too, cherish this moment to consider how far we have come—and how much work we have yet to do—in the march to improve our society and realize the dream Dr. King so ably articulated almost six decades ago.

Black and white image of Martin Luther King, Jr.

This MLK Day, I find myself looking deeper than Dr. King’s Dream speech.  His body of oratory includes so many speeches and sermons, each suited to the times in which he delivered them but most also carrying with them timeless themes of struggle, victory, and reconciliation.  One in particular, his speech from March 25, 1965 in Montgomery, Alabama, is well worth our consideration. 

In “Our God is Marching On!” Dr. King addresses an audience at the conclusion of a history-making march from Selma.  With many of those who had marched in his audience that day, King speaks directly to the “confrontation of good and evil” that characterized American society in the mid-1960s.  As such, “Our God is Marching On!” can be read on one level as a window into a specific moment in time.  On another level, the civil rights icon’s words transcend the years and offer us guidance as we pick ourselves up and move forward into 2021:

“Let us therefore continue our triumphant march to the realization of the American dream…

Let us march on poverty until no American parent has to skip a meal so that their children may eat.  March on poverty until no starved man walks the streets of our cities and towns in search of jobs that do not exist….

Let us march on ballot boxes, march on ballot boxes until race-baiters disappear from the political arena….

Let us march on ballot boxes until we send to our city councils, state legislatures, and the United States Congress men who will not fear to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God.

Let us march on ballot boxes until brotherhood becomes more than a meaningless word in an opening prayer, but the order of the day on every legislative agenda.”

Poverty elimination.  Job security.  Racial harmony.  Justice.  Love.  Mercy.  Humility.  Brotherhood.  These qualities identified by Dr. King are every bit as precious and in need of cultivation today as they were when he emphasized them in Montgomery.

Ever since the woes of last year set in, Americans have longed for a “return to normalcy.”  In “Our God is Marching On!” Dr. King shares a vision of normalcy that we should keep in mind as we shape our present and work toward our future:

“The only normalcy that we will settle for is the normalcy that recognizes the dignity and worth of all of God’s children.  The only normalcy that we will settle for is the normalcy that allows judgment to run down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.  The only normalcy that we will settle for is the normalcy of brotherhood, the normalcy of true peace, the normalcy of justice.”

The United States on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day 2021 is polarized to an extent we haven’t seen—or at least acknowledged—in many years.  Black and White.  Red and Blue.  Our democracy and our society are imperfect, and they always will be.  Still, we are blessed with the grace to live in a country that gives us opportunity each day to get up and work toward building a more perfect union.

I hope that at Gardner-Webb we can use this holiday as much more than simply a day off from classes and work.  Instead, we should use it to recommit ourselves to doing the things—some big, some little—that make life better for others.  In our classrooms and meeting spaces we can model civil discourse.  In a society that seems to have forgotten how to have constructive debate without descending into name-calling, we can talk to each other (even disagree with each other) without demonizing or canceling. 

While celebrating the rich beauty of diversity, we can avoid retreating to separate but equal corners.  Those things that bridge us together as members of the Gardner-Webb community are so much stronger than anything that seeks to bind us into smaller groups.  We are children of God.  We are Runnin’ Bulldogs.  We are people of resilience and hope. 

Dr. King ends his 1965 Montgomery speech with a familiar refrain, “His truth is marching on.”  In the year ahead, let us all draw inspiration from this indomitable spirit.  Let us do our part to reach out, to lift up, and to bring together.  What a glorious march that could be.

Dr. William M. Downs

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