January 18, 2021

Dear William Paterson Community:

Today, we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the cause of equality and justice to which he dedicated, and ultimately sacrificed, his life. I’m sure like many of you, after the initial shock of last week’s deadly and destructive insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, my thoughts quickly turned to the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom organized by Dr. King and other civil rights leaders. On that August day, 58 years ago, some 250,000 marchers gathered peacefully to listen to Dr. King’s now famous “I have a Dream” speech, as well as other speakers and performers.
It can be easy to grow dispirited when we consider that the example of peaceful, powerful, and effective protest that Dr. King and his fellow organizers and followers set has seemingly been forgotten or, worse, deliberately rejected all these decades later. What happened in Washington on January 6 was the antithesis of what Dr. King stood for. It was violent, where he advocated peace. It was fueled by anger and grievance, where he focused on hope and positive change. Its aim was to use illegal force to undermine our democracy, where he focused on persuasion and legislation that would finally have our nation live up to its “sacred obligation” and “make real the promises of democracy.”
To avoid getting bogged down in despair, I find it useful to consider how Dr. King, himself, responded to the legacies of slavery, segregation, and other injustices against which he fought, as well as the many adversities he faced along the way.  He recognized that the fight for justice, as urgent as it was, would be a grinding one – “that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” – and that discouragement would only lead to defeat. So, he indulged in what Barack Obama would later call the “audacity of hope.” And he knew that nothing sustained hope like action, which is why today is the only federal holiday designated as a national day of service.
One way for students to get involved is to participate in today’s New Jersey Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemorative Commission Youth Conference, “Youth, We Hear You!”, a free virtual conference from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Registration and more information can be found here. Also, on Friday, January 29, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., William Paterson will host the MLK Day of Civic Engagement and Dialogue event, featuring a Keynote presentation, Bothered, But Not Broken: A Legacy Continued, by Christopher Miller, senior director of education and community engagement at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. Details can be found on Pioneer Life.
As a university community, we have a special obligation to use our knowledge and resources to advance the cause of equality and justice in a positive manor. In King’s words, “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.” So, as we prepare to begin the Spring semester, let us recommit ourselves to this important work and strive to conduct it on that high plane. 
Richard J. Helldobler, PhD