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Image shows Dean Miner standing next to the letter press in the art studio smiling, wearing his hair in two braids in a blue jacket. Text on left reads "Message from the Dean Dylan AT Miner, Ph.D."
Monday, January 16, 2023

The Beautiful Struggle: Reflections on Rev. Martin Luther King Day

As we begin the second week of the semester, we are called to briefly pause in recognition of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and reflect on his ongoing impact on racial, economic, and social justice.
Since the 1980s, the United States has honored Rev. King with a federal holiday. At Michigan State University, we are observing the 43rd Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Celebration. Throughout this commemoration, it is our shared obligation to reflect on the context of Rev. King’s life and his continuing legacy. As students, faculty, staff, alumnx, and RCAH community members, we honor the radical—and at times incongruous—legacy of Rev. King while fulfilling his calls for fundamental social transformation.
Nearly 60 years after the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963—and 55 years since Rev. King was assassinated—we find ourselves in another watershed moment in the history of the United States and of the world. It is not inconsequential that Rev. King’s words and topics are ones in which we find continued resonance today.
Rev. King was not, in today’s language, a moderate. In fact, he believed in the fundamental redistribution of wealth. He also understood the transnational and geopolitical relationship between the experiences of Black folx in the U.S. and other oppressed and decolonizing peoples around the world. In a 1967 speech titled “Beyond Vietnam,” King noted the need to “rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter—but beautiful—struggle for a new world.” In this speech, he also affirmed that “we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.”
The Urge for Freedom Will Eventually Come
As I write this brief letter, I am listening to “The Great March on Washington,” a vinyl album released by Motown in 1963 (and re-released digitally in 2020). This album, which I picked up recently from the Motown Museum (“Hitsville, USA”), includes a sampling of the speeches made at the August 28, 1963, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. One of the main speeches on that historic day was King’s now-famous “I Have a Dream” speech. An earlier version of these remarks was delivered at Cobo Hall in Detroit as part of The Walk To Freedom, a rally that saw approximately 125,000 people march through the streets of Detroit. (These and other speeches and cultural content were released during the early-1970s by Motown via their imprint Black Forum, which was revitalized in 2021.)
King's participation in the March on Washington was a mere four months after he wrote the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” while briefly imprisoned for non-violent civil disobedience. In that letter, he pressed white America to support the civil rights movement and responded to those who called his actions “unwise and untimely.” He also recognized that “oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The urge for freedom will eventually come.” It was that urge that inspired both King’s commitment to direct action and civil disobedience, and his request that others be aware of their own inaction or their use of “moral means to preserve immoral ends.”
Acting and Dreaming in Solidarity
Another track on the Motown record is of United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther addressing the crowd at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. In his speech, Reuther reminded the estimated 250,000 in attendance of the “moral gap” between the aspirations of democracy in the United States and the realities of inequitable practices. As a white labor leader, Reuther understood the necessity for solidarity, but also the reality that those in power did not always fulfill their own calls for “brotherhood.” Accordingly, Reuther asserted that:
“We need to join together, to march together, and to work together until we've bridged the moral gap between American democracy's noble promises and its ugly practices in the field of civil rights... There is a lot of noble talk about brotherhood, and then some Americans drop the ‘brother’ and keep the hood.”
Together with reflecting upon the societal gains garnered by Rev. King, hearing Walter Reuther and Rev. King on vinyl today reminded me of the multiplicity and sometimes competing interests of those involved in social movements for justice, and reaffirmed how we should never sanitize the complexities of those committed to social justice. At the core of Rev. King’s legacy is a fundamental—what Angela Davis would call “radical,” meaning “at the root”—commitment to “dreaming” and enacting the “beautiful struggle for a new world.”
Arts and Social Justice in RCAH
Today, it is our shared obligation to move Rev. King’s legacy forward. As an artist—and the dean of a College committed to an education steeped in the arts and humanities—I believe that it is crucial to reflect on the lesser-known role that can be played by, indeed, a record label, as well as need for musicians, artists, and cultural workers to amplify the transformational possibilities for social change. As a college, we are committed to teaching this history, as well as preparing RCAH’s students for careers across the range of socially-engaged arts and community-based humanities.
In RCAH, we have an ongoing commitment—as clarified in our recent strategic plan and realized in 16 years of practice—to employ the arts and humanities to address “the complex societal problems facing our local and global communities and reimagine and build a more just, equitable, and sustainable world.” To borrow Rev. King’s own words: We, too, dream of building a new world that “lets freedom ring” for all and recognize that, as King himself wrote from the Birmingham jail: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
In solidarity,
Dylan AT Miner, PhD
Dean and Professor 
Residential College in the Arts and Humanities 
Michigan State University 
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