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A message from President Tromp on Martin Luther King Jr. and Idaho Human Rights Day

Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King, Jr. during a civil rights meeting at the White House, Washington DC, on 18 January 1964. Source: Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum. Photo: Yoichi R. Okamoto

Dear colleagues,

We begin this new year engaged in our extraordinary mission to educate, conduct research and serve. We do this work for the benefit of all of our students and our state.

One of the incredibly valuable features of this season is the range of events planned in the Treasure Valley for Idaho Human Rights Day and Martin Luther King Jr. Day. This moment provides us with opportunities to listen and learn from one another, to engage in thought-provoking conversation and reflection, and to work together to make our community the best it can be.

Dr. King offered a vision of “Beloved Community.” Inspired in his ministry by Matthew 25:40, which reads, “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me,” he remarked, “Ultimately a great nation is a compassionate nation. No individual or nation can be great if it does not have a concern for ‘the least of these’” (December 11, 1964).

Dr. King decried racism, and not just for its effect on those who were directly harmed. As he put it in 1968, “Racism is total estrangement. It separates not only bodies, but minds and spirits.” He believed, in principle, in “seeking friendship and understanding.” It was only in this way that you could come to create Beloved Community, his ultimate vision for the nation and for the greater world.

This was not achieved, in his mind, through violence. As early as 1957, Dr. King contrasted beloved community with acts of violence, the “aftermath” of which he described as “emptiness and bitterness.” The aftermath of nonviolence on the other hand, “is the creation of the beloved community. The aftermath of nonviolence is redemption. The aftermath of nonviolence is reconciliation.” Dr. King wasn’t naïve. He knew that people wouldn’t always agree. Moreover, he firmly believed that justice was vital to community, insisting that injustice always be dealt with nonviolently.

Understanding Dr. King’s beloved community entails understanding nonviolence. Nonviolence is not weakness; it is not passivity; it is not apathy. It is not easy nor is it for the faint of heart. Nonviolence is real and meaningful engagement with complex issues, like racism, poverty, suffering. It was, for him, the only way to achieve a world of hope and peace. He described this path as one of “agape,” love that is creative, groundless, and unmotivated — in other words, others don’t have to earn this love, but just be human. He called it “the love of God operating in the human heart.” It was, he said, a path for people of great courage. As a result of this love, he argued, we would consistently strive to defeat injustice, but never people — those people, we must love. In a 1963 sermon, he said, “With every ounce of our energy we must continue to rid this nation of the incubus of segregation. But we shall not in the process relinquish our privilege and our obligation to love. While abhorring segregation, we shall love the segregationist. This is the only way to create the beloved community.”

He called us to learning and education, commitments to which many of us have dedicated our lives. These entailed a genuine openness to understanding others and learning from them and their perspectives, even when at first glance they might seem different from or counter to your own. It urged sharing broadly and widely a deeply reflective understanding of injustices and people’s ability to heal the world around them. This is deep learning, not surface sweeping of detail. It means studying and engaging and studying again. Next he called for consistent reflection and personal commitment; for me, this is another part of true learning. He believed that, in this way, we might see our own failures to remain nonviolent and to respect others, insights that would help us realign and remain true to the principles of nonviolence.

This, as I said earlier, is not easy. Dr. King recognized that we must sometimes embrace our own suffering and “endure hardship for a clearly defined just cause,” a willingness that “can have an impact on those committing acts of violence as well as on the larger community.”  He was inspired by Gandhi’s “Salt March,” in which thousands of people were beaten and tens of thousands imprisoned to prevent them from gathering freely available salt, rather than buying heavily-taxed imported salt, which supported British rule. Their suffering brought the British to the table and turned world opinion against their colonial rule.

Dr. King believed listening and education, and sometimes such courageous nonviolent acts, could bring us into meaningful and productive dialogue with others: what he often called discussion or negotiation. Here, there is no desire to shame, humiliate, or degrade those with whom you disagree. If you come to such a dialogue with deep understanding, there would be no desire for these outcomes.

His powerful public talks and sermons and his peaceful marches alerted people all over the nation to people’s suffering. Photographs of violence against young African-American men and women who were peacefully marching engaged the moral conscience of the nation. This moral pressure often brought people back to the table to speak. But when they did, Dr. King said, we must always greet them with agape. In the words of the King Center, “Nonviolence seeks friendship and understanding with the opponent. Nonviolence does not seek to defeat the opponent. Nonviolence is directed against evil systems, forces, oppressive policies, unjust acts, but not against persons. Through reasoned compromise, both sides resolve the injustice with a plan of action. Each act of reconciliation is one step closer to the ‘Beloved Community.’”

At the NAACP Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Dinner in 2019, Dr. Charles C. Taylor, the Chapter President, underscored Dr. King’s philosophy in his remarks by calling upon the best in people to achieve this ideal in our own moment. “You are magnificent,” he said. “We can learn to live together in community.”

Let us follow the model of Dr. King and our local leaders as we celebrate together the important work of building Beloved Community. Below, you will find links to local events and student-sponsored events. I encourage you to take the opportunity to engage, learn, reflect, and to build together.

Dr. Marlene Tromp