18 January 2021
Dear Members of the Extended Fordham Family,
As you know, today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a day that usually stands at the head of the University’s Spring Semester calendar, and a day on which we usually gather on campus to remember and to thank God for Dr. King’s remarkable life and equally remarkable ministry devoted to the cause of civil rights and racial equality. It is especially sad that this year, of all years, the restrictions placed on us by the pandemic make it impossible for us to be together to remember him, to reflect on his life and on the prophetic role that he played (and continues to play from his place in heaven) in the life of our country.
Our inability to be with one another on this important (feast) day, however, doesn’t mean that we can’t remember, celebrate, and be bothered (in the most saving way imaginable) by his life and message. In fact, I think that letting the day pass by this year without notice and without deep and reflective prayer on the meaning of his life would be nothing less than sinful. Therefore, I invite you to join with me in reflecting on his life and ministry. As I do so, I wonder if I could share with you a story about Dr. King that has enriched my understanding of him. Many years ago (more than forty years ago, in fact), when I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, I had the good fortune to be mentored by Martin E. Marty, a scholar who was considered to be the dean of historians of American religious history and a professor who rubbed shoulders on a regular basis with those who were making history—not just writing about it. In the course of one of the courses he taught me, he told his students a story about an experience he had with and of Dr. King that is still fresh in my memory.
After Dr. King had been the headliner at a conference that he had organized, Mr. Marty and his wife, Elsa Marty, invited Dr. King and his wife, Coretta Scott King, to dinner to celebrate the success of the program. When they arrived at the restaurant, the four of them were shown to a banquette at the back of the restaurant. Mr. and Mrs. Marty scooted into the inner seats against the wall and began to settle in. Dr. and Mrs. King just stood there. After a few awkward moments, Dr. King simply said that he and his wife would prefer the seats against the wall. Mr. and Mrs. Marty slid out of their seats immediately and Dr. and Mrs. King took their places. After they had all settled in, Mr. Marty asked Dr. King why he wanted the seat against the wall (since Mr. Marty had thought that he would prefer a seat that would be less confining). Dr. King sighed and said, “I believe that I will be assassinated. I just want to be able to look the man who is carrying it out in the eyes as he pulls the trigger.”
As you might imagine, we all gasped when Mr. Marty shared this story with us. Because for the first time in our lives, we began to understand just how costly Dr. King’s prophetic ministry was, and how reconciled he was to embracing the cross that he had taken up in assuming that ministry. After hearing that story, I saw him as a prophet who knew full well the cost and burden of the role he played—not for himself but for his community and for the whole nation. A prophet. Not a role one would choose for oneself. Not a cross that is light. Not a cross that is easy to bear. But it was clear that Dr. King accepted the role with grace, with strong and serene conviction, and with deep love.
His biography makes it clear that it was a heavy and costly ministry that he took on. He was considered a troublemaker in his time. He was jailed by local police for leading nonviolent protests (most notably in Birmingham, Alabama). He was relentlessly investigated by the FBI. Ultimately, as he suspected, he was assassinated by a racist white man who could not abide the prophetic message that he delivered to a nation that was all too frequently unwilling to accept it. In spite of the treatment that he endured in his lifetime, however, Dr. King’s reputation and importance in American life has only grown in the last fifty-three years, thanks to the hard work of scholars, civil rights advocates, and journalists. Likewise, the centrality of Black people in American history is now rightfully acknowledged, thanks to the research done by generations of historians, sociologists, and writers.
Their work is not over, of course, nor is Black people’s struggle for full equality in our country. Now, I cannot presume to know what Dr. King would think of the state of race relations in America in the years since his ministry was cut short by a bullet. I am not wise enough to have an answer to the intractable problem of our national divide on race. But I know enough to know that I don’t want to be part of the problem. Nor do I want our beloved Fordham to be a part of the problem. I would much prefer to have Fordham be on fire (as Saint Ignatius would want it to be) and to set the world on fire for the cause of the Gospel, which is, as Dr. King knew with every fiber of his being, the cause of justice, and the cause of inclusive and redeeming love.
As a Jesuit, Catholic community of higher education, Fordham’s mission demands that we lean into such matters, however uncomfortable. Doing so is what our students expect of us, and less loftily but nonetheless true, ensuring racial equity is what a modern university must achieve to distinguish itself in a crowded and uncertain higher education landscape.
The University has a number of events scheduled for Black History Month, a list of which you can find on this page on the Fordham News site. The list will be updated with new events as they are confirmed (see the list for contact information if you would like to add or update an event).
Finally, know that you are all in my prayers, today and every day. I hope and pray that this month will mark the beginning of the healing process the country desperately needs, and a new attentiveness to the well-being of all Americans, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, or political affiliation.
May God bless the United States. May God bless Fordham.
Joseph M. McShane, S.J.