In Episode 19, President Bob Iuliano is joined by two members of the Gettysburg College community: Associate English Prof. McKinley Melton and Linguistics and Africana Studies Prof. Jennifer Bloomquist, who also serves as associate provost for faculty development and dean of social sciences and interdisciplinary programs. They discuss the lasting impact of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words, what made his use of language so powerful and effective, and how we can apply the lessons learned from his life and legacy to our ongoing conversations on issues of race and identity today.
In Episode 19, President Bob Iuliano is joined by two members of the Gettysburg College community: Associate English Prof. McKinley Melton and Linguistics and Africana Studies Prof. Jennifer Bloomquist, who also serves as associate provost for faculty development and dean of social sciences and interdisciplinary programs. Together, they discuss the lasting impact of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words, what made his use of language so powerful and effective, and how we can apply the lessons learned from his life and legacy to our ongoing conversations on issues of race and identity today.
The episode begins with Melton and Bloomquist explaining the components of language that linguists study, including the history of language, the social functions of language, and structure, grammar, and syntax. They also discuss how their understanding of language and appreciation of its nuances is something that they both share and that influences their pedagogies—taking the implicit nature of language and making it more meaningful and explicit for their students.
The conversation then shifts to the core theme of the episode: how King effectively used language to inspire, motivate, and inform. Melton and Bloomquist take turns breaking down King’s style, rhetoric, rhythm, tonality, and how his background as a preacher equipped him with valuable oratory skills. Furthermore, they share that King’s words were powerful not only because he was an eloquent speaker who connected effectively with his audience, but more importantly, he followed up his words with action.
Later on in the episode, they connect the life, legacy, and words of King back to the College—sharing the lessons that the College and its faculty and students can learn from King. Quoting King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, Bloomquist emphasizes that change takes time. Though it might not be seen in our lifetime, change is worth working toward, as today’s efforts can build a better future. Agreeing with Bloomquist’s sentiments, Melton adds that King was a scholar of history and world civilizations who was open to growing and to changing his viewpoint, and he encourages others to do the same.
The episode concludes with an anecdotal “Slice of Life” told from the president’s perspective. Iuliano reflects on the meaningful ways that the College has rallied the community to celebrate MLK Day—from last year’s Damien Sneed performance at the College’s Majestic Theater to this year’s ongoing yard sale fundraiser. The yard signs feature some of the inspiring words of King, and all proceeds will benefit SCCAP’s Adams County Career Aid Project, which assists local, low-income youth and adults with costs related to post-high school education and training.
Guests featured in this episode
- Jennifer Bloomquist, professor of linguistics and Africana studies, associate provost for faculty development, and dean of social sciences and interdisciplinary programs. With a master’s and a doctorate in linguistics, her research focuses on variations of African American English.
- McKinley Melton, associate professor of English, whose research focuses primarily on the relationship between cultural, political, and spiritual traditions and black diasporan literary and artistic expressions. His scholarly endeavors also include published essays on the works and writings of Martin Luther King, Jr.
McKinley Melton: We celebrate what King does as a speaker, but the reason why people were willing to listen to what he had to say is because he didn’t just talk the talk, he also walked the walk.
President Bob Iuliano: Hi and welcome to Conversations Beneath the Cupola, a Gettysburg College Podcast. I’m Bob Luliano, president of the College and your host.
President Bob Iuliano: In our last episode, I reflected on 2020, which I think it’s fair to say was a most unusual year for the College and beyond. I also offered some thoughts about 2021. Thoughts rooted in the College’s newly launched and ambitious strategic plan.
President Bob Iuliano: This year, I look forward to working with colleagues across the Gettysburg College community to help us yet more fully promote the value of civic knowledge and engagement, to instill a yet deeper appreciation of diversity and inclusivity, and to further help our students become the leaders of today and tomorrow.
President Bob Iuliano: These objectives have particular resonance as we approach Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and honor someone who has made the world a better place through his actions and words. Given the continuing need to address issues of racial and societal justice, his life and words offer lessons of enduring relevance.
President Bob Iuliano: In this episode, I am joined by two Gettysburg College faculty members who will help us more fully reflect on the words of Dr. King. Jennifer Bloomquist and McKinley Melton. Jen is a professor of linguistics and Africana studies, associate provost for faculty development, and dean of social sciences and interdisciplinary programs. With a master’s and PhD in linguistics, her research focuses on variations of African-American English.
President Bob Iuliano: McKinley is an associate professor of English whose research focuses primarily on the relationship between cultural, political, and spiritual traditions in black diasporan literary and artistic expressions. His scholarly endeavors also include published essays on the works and writings of MLK.
President Bob Iuliano: Jen and McKinley, thank you for joining us today and it’s a really interesting, and obviously a very timely conversation, as we approach MLK Day. You both have backgrounds in linguistics, can you say more about what the study of linguistics is and what it offers us as a means of understanding the world in which we live? Jen, do you want to start?
Jen Bloomquist: Sure. Linguists study language in a variety of ways for a number of different reasons. The history of languages, language change, language acquisition, neurological basis of language, and so on. Socio-linguists like me focus on the social functions of language. We look to what people do or don’t do when they’re using language and how they use language to accomplish social goals. Like establishing solidarity or building community.
Jen Bloomquist: No matter what the area of specialty, all linguists work to analyze and understand the components of language. Some of us work on structure, the grammar or syntax. Some of us focus on the sound systems of language, there are linguists that specialize in word meaning for example.
President Bob Iuliano: McKinley, what would you add to that?
McKinley Melton: I will say, I’m not a linguist by training. I’m a scholar of literature, but I spend a lot of time thinking about the value of language, the impact of language, the impact of rhetoric, and how language affects readers, how it affects audiences, how word choice, and word delivery in particular, whenever I start thinking about traditions of performance and orality. To think about how speech acts and utterance can operate as a cultural form, as a political form, and to create a particular impact on audiences.
McKinley Melton: I feel like there may be a bit of overlap there in a lot of what Jen is saying, but I like to be really clear about what I do and don’t do. I will stay in my lane.
President Bob Iuliano: I have to assume that your studies in your different ways though also influenced the way in which you all teach for example. The way in which you use language in the classroom. Say a word or two about that, how does it affect your pedagogy?
Jen Bloomquist: We don’t have a linguistics program here at Gettysburg College, but I do teach linguistics classes. I find that particularly when it comes to the fundamentals of linguistics or language science, my students are fascinated. They feel like it’s knowing a secret because linguists look at language in ways that other people often don’t.
Jen Bloomquist: I focus a lot on looking at the scientific analysis of language. A lot of people who are in McKinley’s field, don’t love linguists for that reason because we’re working really, really hard to make it a scientific study. I think a lot of lit people feel that we strip the beauty of language use.
Jen Bloomquist: I help my students understand that oftentimes language use has so many subtexts that it’s not as careless and carefree as speakers often feel and students know way more about language than they actually know. My job in the classroom is to get them to understand that they’ve spent a lifetime learning a language and they’re actually really good at it.
President Bob Iuliano: Oh, it makes perfect sense. I mean, you take the implicit and you try to make it a little bit more explicit and understand the architecture of what it is that we all do every single day subconsciously and maybe move it to the conscious.
Jen Bloomquist: Absolutely.
President Bob Iuliano: McKinley, how do you think about this?
McKinley Melton: I just want to go on record, I have no objection to linguists. I love linguists. Some of my very best friends are linguists. Yeah, I will agree that I get less interested in the science of language and much more interested in the, I guess the emotion of language and the feeling of language and to think about how language operates as a form of artistry.
McKinley Melton: We think about the poetics of it, but it’s also about the rhythm and the resonance. It’s also about the way in which language is used to create meaning. The way that language literature, written and spoken, is used to create a moment and to create a sense of a moment and a feeling in that moment, but also to articulate issues and to express ideas.
McKinley Melton: A lot of what I do with students in terms of language, not only as readers, but also as writers is to focus on the clarity of expression and to really think about how do you best communicate the ideas that you’re working to communicate and how do you do it in a way that is powerful, and impactful, and captures what it is you intend for your reader, for your audience, for your listener to get.
President Bob Iuliano: Well, I can’t think of a better lead into the central theme of our conversation today and that is the way in which Dr. King used language to do precisely what you just articulated, McKinley. To inspire, to motivate, to inform, to build consensus.
President Bob Iuliano: Help us deconstruct if you can, the way he approached his rhetoric. Why was he so effective in his ability to capture a moment, and capture a cause, and to inspire folks? What is it about his approach that made him effective?
McKinley Melton: Well there a lot of things and I’m going to try to not go on for too long here, but there are a lot of things that I think are really powerful about King’s rhetoric and King’s language.
McKinley Melton: In part, I think that King really understood the importance of oratory as a performance. I think he understood the value of rhythm and rhyme. He understood that language is an oratorical, or can be when wielded by the right person, an oratorical art form.
McKinley Melton: There were ways that he was really intentional about stoking the emotions of an audience, reaching their sensibilities, being able to blend logic with passion in order to really create a lasting moment in order to best articulate the message that he was looking to articulate. I think that there’s a real value in spending some time with his words and spending some time with what he’s actually doing because of the words of course are beautiful on the page, but they’re also amazing if you can listen to the recordings because you get a sense that for MLK language was largely about building a connection and about articulating a very clear and very mission driven sense of purpose for why he was giving the words that he was giving at any particular point in time.
President Bob Iuliano: Jen, before you jump in, McKinley, you’ve raised the question that I was going to ask next, and that is, is it appropriate to separate style from substance here? Or is the style necessarily effective given the content and the mission that you just articulated that he was seeking to achieve?
McKinley Melton: I would say no. I would say no. I would not separate style from substance because I don’t want to say the style was the substance, but the style was substantive. I don’t think it would be fair to separate the quote unquote, the flourish of the language from the import of the subject matter and the content for what it was King was attempting to deliver because I think they’re one in the same. Had he not been talking about the things that he was talking about, I don’t know that he would have needed the strategies that he deployed through his use of words and rhetoric.
President Bob Iuliano: Jen, what do you make of this?
Jen Bloomquist: One of the things that I wanted to point out, so you ask how King helped to prompt some of these larger discussions about social justice? I agree with McKinley. I think that Martin Luther King, like other great American orators, particularly those who got their early experience in the black church, in black churches, I should say. Have a relationship with language that is largely performative. That certainly is a part of Black preaching style and black culture.
Jen Bloomquist: I think one of the reasons that King was so skillful, and inspiring, and motivating and why his message has such longevity is because also of content. Even though he was chiefly concerned with fighting for Black America, a good deal of his message embraced larger themes of universal peace, grace, dignity, justice for all people. He didn’t make the fight for black equality only about blacks. I think that’s one of the things that’s really important for us to remember.
Jen Bloomquist: He reminded his audiences, that the struggle for racial justice was the responsibility of all Americans. He talked frequently about justice and equality for all God’s children. He encouraged brotherhood among all people. We have statements from him like, “Injustice everywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” That part of his mission transcends race and is translatable to other movements. I think his message of unity and non-violent resistance is something that appeals to majority audiences.
McKinley Melton: I think one of the really important parts of this conversation that I want to make sure we don’t lose is that in large part, the value of King as a speaker was also because he backed up his words with action. The understanding of King as a writer, and as an orator has to go hand-in-hand with the understanding of King as an activist and an organizer.
McKinley Melton: One of the things that I think is really valuable is that we celebrate what King does as a speaker, but the reason why people were willing to listen to what he had to say is because he didn’t just talk the talk, he also walked the walk. I think that’s a really important thing to always bear in mind that we talk about, for instance, the I Have a Dream speech, and I’m sure we’ll talk about that more later, but the important thing is that the I Have a Dream speech was the centerpiece of the March on Washington for jobs and freedom.
McKinley Melton: It was the centerpiece of a massive organizing effort that was about moving legislation. That was about establishing policy. That was about creating substantive change that wasn’t just about papering over the moment with words, but was really about: How do we find the right words to help guide us through the action of the moment?
President Bob Iuliano: You both have referenced his training in the pulpit. How did that shape the way he approached language and persuasiveness?
Jen Bloomquist: King, like other speakers as I have mentioned, who were forged in black churches like Jesse Jackson, like Louis Farrakhan, who are also really good examples of employing black preaching style in the secular realm.
Jen Bloomquist: King purposefully employed some different linguistic variables to situate his speech, not only regionally, but ethnically, and stylistically. I think that’s one of the things that helped him connect with and beyond audiences before him. He relied really heavily on his background as a preacher and it was exceptionally good at performing his speeches.
Jen Bloomquist: Like McKinley mentioned before, he gathered his own energy from his audience, which is typical of good black preachers. We have this rhetorical tradition, a linguistic tradition, in black churches that has been heavily studied and also that is more of a community event. McKinley can speak to this as well.
Jen Bloomquist: There are these black preaching styles that are evident in King’s speeches, in his sermons that are designed particularly to connect with the audience, which is really, really important part of black church culture.
Jen Bloomquist: Some specific things that he did and we see these in his most famous speeches. We see it in I Have a Dream speech, is that like other Black preachers, he used analogies that bridged everyday experiences to the aspirational. He used rhetorical strategies, like call and response or alliteration, repetition. We see significant repetition in King speeches that brings the audience back to his point.
Jen Bloomquist: He also does some things that are really typical of black preaching styles. Changes in volume or pitch or rhyme. He uses abrupt starts and stops. This is a black preaching method. There’s a linguist Geneva Smitherman who calls this tonal semantics, which is the use of rhythm and inflection to convey meaning so it’s beyond just the words.
Jen Bloomquist: King was gifted at what we call code switching. So he used African-American English, which is sort of the most comfortable in black churches and in black preaching, but he also used general American English, which helped establish him with audiences who were more familiar with language of wider communication in the United States.
President Bob Iuliano: McKinley, I know you’ve studied this. The boundary between this and music strikes me as a very fluid one at least. I believe you’ve paid attention to this and the work that you’re doing.
McKinley Melton: I have and I want to echo a lot of what Jen has said about these various different stylistic elements of the black worship experience and the black church experience, which absolutely blends musicality, rhythm, pitch, meter, timber, all of those kinds of musical elements that come out throughout the vocal performance and throughout vocal expression.
McKinley Melton: I’m thinking a lot about one of my favorite collections of poetry from the Harlem Renaissance’s James Weldon Johnson’s “God’s Trombones.” Where he talks about the preacher as mimicking a trombone as an instrument with their oratorical delivery that captures all of the emotions of humanity and does so in ways that are very, very musically resonant.
McKinley Melton: The other point that I want to add that I think is also really important here is that as we’re talking about emerging from the community of worshipers of the Christian Church and the Southern Baptist Church specifically. It’s important that we’re thinking not only about the ways in which the stylistic elements inform the worship experience, but also to remember that the worship experience is ultimately an experience that is grounded in a particular set of faith based principles. It’s grounded in ideology, it’s grounded in a particular substance.
McKinley Melton: Any preacher worth his or her salt is not just going to give you the ornamental aspects of the worship experience, but they’re going to give you the substance that congregants come looking for as well. If you come in with all of the ornaments of great performance and speech, but you never once referenced the Bible, or you never once reference ideas that are actually resonating with your audience, the church mothers are going to look at themselves and their going to say, “Well, that was a really pretty poem that they just did, but that wasn’t [crosstalk 00:18:29].”
President Bob Iuliano: As I think about the I Have a Dream speech, and the conversation that we’ve had where so much of his style derived from the heritage with black religious traditions, yet he was speaking in that moment to a much broader audience as well. He was trying to change or culture the majority of which would not have been familiar with the traditions that inspired his approach.
President Bob Iuliano: How did he navigate in that speech, at least from your perspective, how does he navigate that duality of purpose? That is the sort of animation of the core constituents, but reaching a broader audience, the familiarity of the rhetorical framework that he’s accustomed to, but yet again, that the society as a whole probably wasn’t accustomed to. How did he navigate that in the speech and what made it so effective given those challenges?
Jen Bloomquist: I think that’s a really well-crafted speech and that’s why we hold onto it so dearly all these years later. What he did was he was selective in using what translates to wider audiences and what doesn’t.
Jen Bloomquist: If you look at the,I Have a Dream speech, most Americans are familiar with the beginning and the end, and it’s really too bad, because it’s a great speech throughout. At the beginning, you know, here you have...He’s at the Lincoln Memorial and he begins by invoking Lincoln and references the enslavement of African Americans. He reminds his audience of the promise of the constitution and points out that it’s a promise yet unfulfilled for Americans of color. Then you can see the speech build in the way that a sermon would in terms of energy. He uses this gathering momentum. I mean, this is a unique opportunity. We had never seen anything like this in the United States.
Jen Bloomquist: He uses this gathering momentum and uses the spotlight, the media spotlight on the March of Washington, he knows that this is going beyond the people who were there, and he uses that moment to make an explicit appeal to whites for allyship, but also for reckoning. At one point, he even says, “Many of our white brothers as evidenced their presence here today have come to realize their destiny is tied up with our destiny.” He both invites and implicates whites in the same speech. This is a brilliant strategy.
Jen Bloomquist: People who look at black preaching styles and black language often point out that there are many layers of meaning. black speakers, black preachers, black media figures often have to craft their messages on several levels. One that reaches the wider audience, but then one also that sort of gives a shout to their base, their local constituents.
Jen Bloomquist: He blends these two parts so that he’s not seen as abandoning his heritage, he’s not seen as not being a black preacher, but he also has this other message that’s overlaid for the wider audience. He cites things that are important to Americans in general, like Lincoln, like the constitution. He refers to it several times. In the end, he finishes this speech with the I Have a Dream stanzas, and this is an appeal to all of the audience to realize the best possible version of America.
Jen Bloomquist: His final call in that speech is the way that he frames it. No one can really argue with the idea of children holding hands, and that there’s this brotherhood, and that there’s this call for peace and unity.
McKinley Melton: I agree. The I Have a Dream speech is one of my favorites to teach for so many reasons, but among them is a lot of the reasons that Jen has pointed out about, just literally it’s just a really good speech.
McKinley Melton: The thing about it that I find is really powerful is that as I often tell students, it is one of the most widely read and least understood speeches in American history. I think that it is one of the most misunderstood speeches largely because the way that King taps into all of these beautiful sentiments and optimistic ideas, I think can often be the positivity that folks want to zoom in on. As opposed to really, really delving into the depth of the contours of the speech in the way that Jen has just done.
McKinley Melton: I’ve had classes, for instance, my literature of the Civil Rights Movement course, where we have spent the entire class period, just going over this speech line by line. To really think about what is it that King is actually doing here and what is it that he’s actually accomplishing.
McKinley Melton: One of the things that I love about the speech is the off the cuff opening. The initial speech he formally begins with the homage to Lincoln, but there’s that opening greeting where he says, “I’m happy to join with you today and what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.”
McKinley Melton: That feels like a fairly innocuous statement, but then when you realize that he’s making this statement while Lincoln is literally at his back while he is quoting from the Declaration of Independence, and he’s quoting from the Emancipation Proclamation that he’s literally telling his audience, “Yeah, I know all about the Declaration of Independence and the Emancipation Proclamation. Those will pale in comparison to what we’re doing here today because today is really the moment where we are actually pushing this nation toward freedom.”
McKinley Melton: There is, as I always like to say to students, there’s a certain shadiness in that comment, but I think it’s really intentional. It’s really purposeful because people gravitate toward King’s rhetoric about freedom and liberty, but they don’t always ask the important questions about what is he saying freedom and liberty actually are here? When is he saying it’s actually going to be accomplished here?
McKinley Melton: Everything around the Emancipation Proclamation, everything around the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, King is really intentional about framing all of that as a promissory note, which is, as I often describe to my students, if you want to talk to Americans in language they understand you want to use patriotism, you want to use Christianity, and you want to use capitalism. He’s coming at this from a very capitalist sensibility that you borrowed money and you owe it. You made a promise and you need to come through on your debt because that is who we are as Americans. We honor our debts and we don’t take handouts and you have been taking handouts from the black community for years, and now we’re coming and saying, the bill is due and you’re telling us it’s insufficient funds. Well, we refuse to believe that this nation has insufficient funds. There’s a very intentional strategic, and I would argue very critically minded way of thinking about the language of promises unfulfilled and debts that have been unpaid.
McKinley Melton: Lastly, and I’ll try not to go on for too long, but I get very excited. Jen was also pointing out people talk a lot about the opening and the closing of the speech because of course you have that beautiful soaring crescendo of, “I have a dream, I have a dream,” but one of the lines that I also think is quoted most often and so incorrectly is this idea that, “One day you will be judged not by the color of your skin, but by the content of your character.”
McKinley Melton: I think that that’s a really important idea that King is advancing and a lot of folks have seized on this idea as one that suggests the need for a colorblind society and they use this language to attack affirmative action. They use this language to attack what they consider as racial preferences.
McKinley Melton: I think that for me, the most important part is not the beginning clause, but the final one. Where King says, “Judged not by the color of your skin, but by the content of your character.” A person’s metal is not in the color of their skin, but it’s in how they live their creed. It’s in how they embody their principles. It’s in how they demonstrate their character through a daily commitment to the things that they say that they hold dear.
McKinley Melton: The entire speech for me is about accountability, but there is a way that we have historically looked to it as a speech about dreaming, and a speech about hopefulness, and a speech about a desire and a want for something that lies often, maybe beyond ourselves. I don’t think that’s what King is going for here at all.
McKinley Melton: I think it’s a speech that is really intentionally about promises that have been made, and debts that are owed, and responsibilities that we have to live our creeds and not just as I’ve said before, not just talk the talk, but really, really commit to walking the walk of who we are as American citizens and what this country owes to one another.
President Bob Iuliano: If we had more time, I think it would be really interesting to explore whether the understanding of the speech, as you both have described it, or the narrowness of the understanding of the speech has been incidental or purposeful. That is, has it been something that society as a whole has encouraged precisely because it’s the easier part of the speech to connect to? It doesn’t compel us to examine ourselves and to examine our history in quite the same way. We probably don’t have time to do a deep dive into that, but McKinley I can see you want to at least go into it.
McKinley Melton: I know we don’t have a tremendous amount of time, but I do want to make a point about that because I think that the question you ask is a really important one. In this idea of how do we grapple with the legacy of MLK is really important as we’re moving into the MLK holiday and as we’re thinking, particularly in January of 2021, with everything that’s happening in the world.
McKinley Melton: One of the things that I’ve often been frustrated by people talk about the sanitization of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the ways in which we basically try to clean him up in order to make him more palatable for the historical record. One of the things that I think is really important that we have to really reckon with is that the intentional, I would argue, sanitization of MLK has also done us the disservice of sanitizing the times in which he lived and sanitizing the opposition that he faced.
McKinley Melton: When we only talk about King as a beautiful orator, who spoke of hopefulness, and justice, and freedom, but we don’t think about him as an activist and we don’t think about him as an organizer. We don’t think about him as someone who marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. When we don’t think about all of those other things, then I think we run the risk of reducing the times of the Civil Rights Movement into a time period, where there were just a whole bunch of misguided people who simply needed a good speech and a good strong talking to in order to see the error of their ways and then they just came around.
McKinley Melton: I think that we do ourselves a disservice to understanding the very gritty and very hands-on and often very violent nature of organizing for civil rights because it also allows us to forget how violent the opposition was.
President Bob Iuliano: The life of John Lewis and the way it was reflected on very much put that into the American consciousness again and somehow in his life, we managed to be reminded of it in part because of his enduring activism, as you were saying from the outset here, McKinley.
President Bob Iuliano: I have one last question, which is making it a little bit more parochial, and it’s focusing on us as a college. You all know that we are very much committed to graduating students who are able to go out there and make a difference in the world. How do we capture the sort of essence of what King did and how he did it, whether rhetorically and through activism? What lessons do we have as a college that we should be taking on board, particularly as we start a strategic plan that McKinley is co-chairing one of the big committees of, how do we move this forward in a way that is harvesting the wisdom and the experience that King’s life and words offer us? Jen, do you want to start?
Jen Bloomquist: Sure. Part of what I want to start with is where McKinley ended last, which is, it’s not just the fact that if we sanitize history, we sanitize the opposition to King, but it’s also the case that I think our students get the wrong idea that King enjoyed, and all civil rights leaders enjoyed this sort of fame and goodwill from across the entire community. I don’t think that that was true.
Jen Bloomquist: I think that when we talk to our students about the legacy of Martin Luther King and the ways in which they can continue his life’s work, the first thing I think we need to do is I think we need to encourage grace and generosity in our students. Much of what we learned from MLK is the value of inclusivity, openness, kindness, and a lot of our students I think, are already so closed off to the experiences of others. I think that we need to model empathy and expect it from our students as well.
Jen Bloomquist: While I think it’s important for us to teach our students how to communicate with compassion, I think we also need to teach them to listen with it as well. We need to be honest with our students, that working for social justice is hard and that this kind of change can take a really long time. I think it’s likely in most cases that what students are committed to and are working for now, these changes won’t happen in their lifetimes, but just because they may not see these changes or changes in the way that they’d like to see change, it doesn’t mean that that isn’t worth doing the work.
Jen Bloomquist: I referenced the, I’ve Been to the Mountaintop speech before, but it’s exactly the way King ends that speech as well. He says that, “We have some difficult days ahead,” and he says it doesn’t matter to him. He’s been to the mountain top. And he sees the possibilities of what can be. He says, he’s seen the promised land and he said, “I may not get to the promised land with you, but we will get there.”
Jen Bloomquist: I think as we move forward with a new curriculum, these are the things that we should think about. How do we build empathy in our students? How do we build generosity? Citizenship is a really, really important segment of education, of educating the whole person and those are things that I think we should focus on.
President Bob Iuliano: You’ll get no disagreement from me at all on all of that. The lessons that he offers about how to inspire and how to connect, if our students want to bring about change, they need to figure out what the means are. They can’t do it alone. It takes a coalition. McKinley, I’ll let you have the last word.
McKinley Melton: I would say again, as I often find myself in the position, I agree wholeheartedly with everything Jen has said. I would add to it for me, I think one of the really important things about a really thoughtful engagement with King is that he brings his whole self to his work. Even as we’ve seen from our conversation today, the experiences, not only as a preacher, but as the son of a preacher, how has he invested his lifetime in the black church and in those spaces and in those audiences into his work.
McKinley Melton: King is a tremendous scholar. He comes to non-violence because he studies non-violence in global movements. He comes to his work largely as an intellectual. One of my favorite writings by him, which we didn’t get a chance to talk about today is the letter from a Birmingham City Jail, which I love this letter because he is quoting people while sitting in a jail cell.
McKinley Melton: He’s got these quotes offhand to reference these folks. He is a scholar of world civilization. He is a scholar of history, of religion. He studies movements, he’s thoughtful and he’s also someone who is always open to learning more. It’s important to understand that his movement toward an understanding of class comes over a career because he’s open and receptive to learning and he’s open to growing and to changing his viewpoints. So there’s an intellectual flexibility to the arc of his career that I think it holds real value for our students.
McKinley Melton: As we’re helping them to think about how you think holistically about the world in which you live? How do you bring to bear the full weight of your knowledge, of your experiences, of everything you bring to the table while still recognizing that you have so much more to gain, if you can, as Jen has pointed out, be a thoughtful and attentive listener. If you can explore and pull together the resources at your disposal to say, “I bring a lot to this conversation, I bring a lot to my work. Here’s what I can gain and here’s how I bring it all together in order to go forth and to do the work that must be done and to live the life that I know I’m meant to lead.”
McKinley Melton: I think that there’s something really important about watching all of that culminate in what King does throughout his speeches, throughout his writings, and throughout the life that he lives that I think can really hold some valuable lessons for our students. I think it’s incumbent upon us as educators to help steer students toward those lessons, by giving them his writings and his readings and by teaching about him in a more holistic way and not just the two or three quotes that always get kind of recycled.
President Bob Iuliano: Which strike me as all the more important than these days when students are exposed to brevity of communication, being a form of emphasis rather than depth and nuance.
President Bob Iuliano: What a phenomenal conversation. I’m very indebted to both of you for bringing this perspective and this understanding. I think that for our audience who will listen, they will leave with a deeper appreciation for some of the complexity and some of the work they have to do to truly better understand this remarkable man’s life and how they can model some of that in their efforts to help change the world around us.
President Bob Iuliano: Thank you both so much for joining us today.
McKinley Melton: Thank you for inviting us.
Jen Bloomquist: Thank you for having us.
President Bob Iuliano: Let me conclude with a Slice of Life from Gettysburg College. In more ordinary times, the college acknowledges MLK Day through programming that brings the community together and gives us a chance to engage in the very reflection Dr. King’s life and words compel.
President Bob Iuliano: Last year, for example, we were treated to a rousing performance by Damian Sneed at the Majestic Theater. A musician whose work is inspired by Dr. King’s spoken word, and who shows celebrate different aspects of African American musical traditions.
President Bob Iuliano: While the pandemic has made it impossible to come together as we would, the college has found a different and powerful way to mark the day. The office of diversity and inclusion in collaboration with the YWCA Gettysburg and Adams County and South Central Community Action Programs is selling yard signs featuring some of the inspiring words of Dr. King. All of the proceeds from the sign sale will benefit the Adams County Career Aid Project, which assists local low income youth and adults with cost-related to post high school education and training.
President Bob Iuliano: Quotes on the site include, “Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.” “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” And, “I still have a dream.”
President Bob Iuliano: Dr. King’s words inspire action, and I am grateful for the response of this community to the continuing urgency of the message he is so powerfully articulated.
President Bob Iuliano: Thanks for listening. If you’ve enjoyed this conversation and want to be notified of future episodes, please subscribe to Conversations Beneath the Cupola by visiting gettysburg.edu or wherever you get your podcasts. If you have a topic or suggestion for a future podcast, please email email@example.com. Thank you, and until next time.