MLK: More than just a Scholarship

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MLK: More than just a Scholarship

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“He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps perpetuate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it,” said Martin Luther King Jr. Saint Louis University needs to be real with itself and its community. Are the Martin Luther King Jr. Scholars truly deserving and constantly earning the right to be called King scholars, or do the recipients collect scholarship money and hold the title simply as a resume decorator?

In high school, when I first learned that SLU had a Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship, I was elated. I assumed that this meant that there were individuals at SLU who shared MLK’s passion for social justice and understood him beyond two sentences of the “I Have A Dream” speech. Most importantly, I assumed that these individuals felt the same call to action as he did. I knew I had to apply. During the interview, I was asked to define terms like oppression and privilege. I was asked what made me feel qualified enough to refer to myself as a MLK Scholar.

But during my two years as a MLK Scholar, I have been greatly disappointed. I have been forced to question who Dr. Martin Luther King really was. First off, let me say that SLU, besides its lack of black scholarly presence, is the perfect place for the MLK Scholarship. King was a part of America’s privileged society, like myself and majority of SLU students. He chose to use his privilege to give a voice to those marginalized in society instead of sitting comfortably and blissfully ignorant.

My first moment of disappointment came when I learned that I was one of three African American scholars in the class of 2018. I was confused. Was it that African Americans had not applied for the scholarship, or was it that the University found majority of my counterparts unqualified? MLK was most passionate about racial justice issues. With this being said, should not the MLK Scholars represent a more racially diverse pool of applicants?

My second disappointment was the inability of the MLK Scholars to confront current issues of social justice. Last school year featured clarion calls for MLK Scholars, and most of us failed to answer. The current movement regarding black lives arrived on campus, and we failed to get involved. We failed to represent the essence of MLK. during “Occupy SLU,” when black community members who have been marginalized and oppressed came to the university looking to be heard – and where were we? Did we think it was inappropriate for us to get involved in a Black Lives Matter movement? A meeting of the MLK Scholars was called, and the question was posed: What do we, as MLK scholars, want to do in response to the protest for black lives on campus? Do we, as MLK Scholars, want to have a public response when black members’ of our society lives are being taken due to their race? Do we want to respond when members of our society are crying out? I am saddened to say that, as a whole, we decided no. Someone even said that it would separate us from people within the student body, create conflict and make it look like we are choosing a side. MLK must have turned in his grave.

A group of students blessed with the privilege and honor of being associated with King’s name choosing not to get involved in a Black Lives Matter movement because of the risk of conflict? It became clear to me; the majority of the people in the room did not understand King’s philosophy or efforts.

“And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right,” he said. Yet MLK Scholars, as a collective, were unwilling to risk comfort to confront injustice. We should be ashamed and apologize to the St. Louis community, as well as King’s family, for receiving financial benefits in his name but failing to do the work. Collectively, we failed to contribute. I am not even sure if MLK himself would have received the MLK scholarship, or if having it would have encouraged him to fight for justice. My fellow MLK Scholars, SLU and community members: There is a problem.

Does the program seek to produce and recognize individuals who choose the route of King, or does it solely look good on paper? MLK noted: “All we say to America is to be true to what you said on paper. If I lived in China or even Russia, or any totalitarian country, maybe I could understand some of these illegal injunctions. Maybe I could understand the denial of certain basic First Amendment privileges, because they hadn’t committed themselves to that over there. But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly.”

Similarly, I somewhere read “the pursuit of truth for the greater glory of God and for the service of humanity.”

Somewhere I read: “In keeping with Dr. King’s legacy, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Scholarship is a competitive award granted to undergraduate students who are committed to social justice, academic success, service, leadership and intentional cultural awareness experiences…. King Scholars, will engage with students, faculty and staff who are dedicated to promoting Dr. King’s ideals, both at Saint Louis University and in the St. Louis Community…. Students from diverse and historically underrepresented populations in U.S. higher education are strongly encouraged to apply.”

Perhaps if I attended another university or was the benefactor of a different scholarship, I could understand. I could understand the lack of black scholars, the unwillingness to get involved in a Black Lives Matter movement or other current social justice issues. But being that MLK died for black lives and was assassinated while on the brim of a poverty campaign, I cannot. And because my silence is consent, I must speak out.  All I ask of SLU, the MLK Scholarship program and the scholars is to be true to what we claim to be on paper.