MLK Day 2013: UNH Tones Down the Politics

Drum Major It's that time of year when Pun Salad looks at the upcoming "celebration" of Martin Luther King Day at the University Near Here. I'm somewhat surprised to discover a change for the better. What happened?

More on that below. First, the obligatory "some things don't change" part:

  • MLK Day is the only holiday for which UNH engineers a multi-day shindig with guest speakers and sponsored events.

  • It wouldn't be kosher to do it on the actual MLK day on January 21; Spring Semester classes don't start until January 22, and what's the point of doing this if the students aren't around? So the events are scheduled to start the following week, from January 27 until February 5.

  • UNH publicizes a "Spiritual Celebration" service to be held at the Durham Community Church. MLK Day is a day on which the Wall of Separation is temporarily lowered, where the University advocates you show up at a church for "songs, drumming, music, poetry, and special readings". It allows the participants to obtain that warm-n-fuzzy moral superiority buzz without getting bogged down in all that tacky, inconvenient God and Bible stuff.

Here's where things are slightly better this year: it used to be that the tone of the MLK celebration at UNH was in-your-face leftism. This year…not quite as much! The keynote speaker is Rob Dixon, UNH class of 1983. Mr. Dixon came to UNH on a basketball scholarship, and is one of the team's top scorers ever. He didn't get to play in the NBA, but played professionally in Europe. He went on to teach and coach, and nowadays is is the founder and Executive Director of Project RISE, devoted to providing remedial education to "academically high risk" students in the Boston Public School system.

In short, Mr. Dixon is actively involved in trying to teach black kids who need help. Search as I might, I can't find even a hint of the strident leftism that's been the norm in past MLK day speakers. And he has an actual strong tie to UNH, not just parachuting in for the day.

So good for UNH; I don't get to say that enough. He's not my dream MLK Day speaker (Clarence Thomas, Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, Herman Cain, Tim Scott, …) but a decided positive break from UNH's tedious ideological tradition.

Not to say that things are perfect. The program for MLK day is the usual thoughtless word-stuffed gasbaggery. For example, the description of the previously-mentioned "MLK Spiritual Celebration: Rise Up into Communities of Justice and Compassion" at Durham Community Church:

Join the UNH and Durham communities in an inter-faith and multi-faith spiritual celebration that supports and highlights the spiritual foundation that Martin Luther King Jr. brought to his life and works. Featuring songs, drumming, music, poetry, and special readings, the community remembers The Rev. Dr King. Reception to follow. All are welcomed to this moving and joyous evening!

For prose like this, the rules are: (1) don't use just one word when you can stick in a few more; (2) don't worry at all about it meaning anything specific.

So: not just "justice" but "justice and compassion".

And there are "communities" of each. Or maybe both. Whatever.

And you don't do anything as mundane as joining these "communities". You "rise up into" them. Which is, I'm sure, a different process.

But if you get past that, you get to ponder the nature of the "spiritual celebration": it's "inter-faith" and "multi-faith". Are those different concepts? If so, how will the "celebration" be split between them? Maybe the music and drumming will be inter-faith, while the poetry and readings will be multi-faith? There will be a test afterwards to see if you figured it out.

The "spiritual celebration" has something to do with a "spiritual foundation". What? Well it "supports and highlights" it.

How do you "support" a foundation? Isn't a foundation something that supports things on its own?

Worse, we read that this is a foundation that Martin Luther King, Jr. "brought to" his life and works. Does that metaphor work for you? Me neither. You don't "bring" a foundation anywhere. You build a foundation, and then you build on a foundation.

Geez, I hate it when I spend ten times more mental work reading a short bit of prose that the author spent writing it.

Some notes about the MLK "quote" emblazoned at the top of the program:

Everybody can be great . . . because anybody can serve.

The page claims this to be a quote from King's 1968 sermon "The Drum Major Instinct". It turns out to be a popular misquotation. It should be:

Everybody can be great . . . because everybody can serve.

Yes, I verified it by listening to the audio. It even makes more sense that way. Fun fact: when I pointed this out to the folks responsible for the page, I was—rather snootily—informed that they had "vetted" the quotation. Actually, they had discovered the (common) misquotation. And rather than check again, they decided to leave it in place, blissfully confident in their slipshod "vetting".

Oh well, at least it's not as if they carved it in stone. Ironically, the "Drum Major" sermon was the source for a different misquotation. And this one really was carved in stone. When the MLK memorial in Washington DC was unveiled in 2011, it was engraved with:

I WAS A DRUM MAJOR FOR JUSTICE PEACE AND RIGHTEOUSNESS

… which, whatever its truthiness, are not words that MLK actually uttered, and arguably have a totally different connotation than the actual words King spoke. Leaving out the responses from the congregation:

If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don't want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. And every now and then I wonder what I want them to say. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize--that isn't important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards--that's not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school.

I'd like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others.

I'd like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody.

I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question.

I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry.

And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked.

I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison.

I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.

Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I won't have any money to leave behind. I won't have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind. And that's all I want to say.

It was recently announced that the misquote will be obliterated from the memorial sometime in 2013, at a cost of $700-$900K.

Finally, it should be noted that King's 1968 "Drum Major" sermon is widely recognized as being "adapted" from a 1949 sermon by J. Wallace Hamilton. Um, without attribution. You can get an idea of the extent of the "adaptation" via the Google Books view of Keith D. Miller's Voice of Deliverance: The Language of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Its Sources. Fans of MLK tend to dismiss/explain away his plagiarism from other works, which is fine, but it's a little ironic that UNH is choosing to draw attention to behavior that would get a current-day student severely disciplined.


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