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MLK’s teachings are incorporated into the W&L classroom and community In conjunction with a weeklong series of events, students at Washington and Lee will dive deeper into Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s commitment to social justice and equality through coursework and service opportunities.

Bright-4-600x400 MLK’s teachings are incorporated into the W&L classroom and communityBright Frimpong

Washington and Lee University’s weeklong series of events from Jan. 14-21 celebrating the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. extend beyond the programming to bring Dr. King’s values and teachings to the forefront in classroom assignments and volunteer opportunities on campus. The celebration includes an address from keynote speaker Keisha Lance Bottoms, former mayor of Atlanta, a Screen to Square screening of the film “Till” and an MLK Reflections Dinner for students, faculty and staff, among other events.

“In addition to increasing the diversity of our students, faculty and staff, including, engaging and connecting all members of our community is a major part of this university’s strategic plan,” said Leslie Wingard Cunningham, associate provost for faculty development and co-chair of the university’s MLK Commemorative Planning Committee. “Therefore, our many MLK Week happenings to which all are welcome, as well as the robust cultural studies course offerings that W&L faculty offer throughout the academic year, fit right in to that plan.”

Dallas Tatman, assistant director of fellowships and visiting instructor of anthropology, gave a presentation at W&L’s Winter Academy 2023 for faculty and staff on “Maximizing MLK Week.” He spoke about why it was important to incorporate MLK programming in a way that fits the context of the course, and he shared a few examples from his and his colleague’s classrooms.

In Tatman’s “Sport is My Religion” sociology and anthropology class, he’ll use the concept of charisma as an entry point to examine and articulate both athletic and religious cultures. The discussion will center on boxer and activist Muhammad Ali and Dr. King, both charismatic figures whose lives intersected as they represented Islam and Christianity during the American Civil Rights Movement. Students will also be asked to share their experience attending one MLK programming activity throughout the week, noting charisma in action.

Bright Frimpong, assistant professor of business administration, incorporates elements of ethical and social-impact reasoning into concepts discussed in his “Fundamentals of Business Analytics” class. The class introduces students to business statistics and programming, with the goal of teaching students quantitative reasoning and how to make data-driven business decisions.

“The idea is that businesses do not exist in a vacuum but rather in society, and as such, they owe an obligation to all stakeholders, not just their owners (shareholders),” Frimpong said. “My goal is to teach students how to make data-driven business decisions while being mindful of the socio-ethical implications of such decisions, aligning with the principles and values advocated by Martin Luther King Jr.”

During MLK Week, students will read two articles on boycotting and employee strikes. Class discussions will focus on the implications (social, economic and ethical) of these actions on businesses from all stakeholders’ perspectives. The objective is to tease out the tensions between the different stakeholder obligations, echoing Dr. King’s commitment to justice and equality.

“As an instructor, I believe that these discussions and assessments will prompt students to become aware of their biases and introduce them to the tensions surrounding business decisions while being inspired by Dr. King’s legacy of social justice and ethical leadership,” Frimpong said. “In the end, I hope that students learn how to make data-driven business decisions while being mindful of the socio-ethical implications of such decisions in the spirit of Dr. King.”

In the past year, Fiona Watson, associate professor of biology and neuroscience, has incorporated the nonfiction novel “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” into the curriculum of her cell biology course. Lacks was a Black woman whose cells were taken without her knowledge and were the first immortalized human cells grown in culture, known as HeLa cells, which are still alive today. The cells were used to develop the polio vaccine, cancer research and in vitro fertilization, among other scientific uses. The book explores the matter of race, science and ethics in powerful and complex ways, according to Watson.

“It tracks, sometimes in brutal detail, practices that were considered ethical at the time, and it problematizes long-held assumptions about the neutrality of scientific and medical approaches to human subjects,” Watson said. “Since most of the students in this course are either going on to medical, physician’s assistant or graduate school, I feel it is our job to bring awareness to issues of inequities and racial bias in the field of cell biology, research and medicine.”

In the spirit of Dr. King’s legacy of bringing awareness to and righting issues of racial equality and integration and economic justice and opportunity, Watson is currently working with a W&L student to create a public event to introduce the community to HeLa cells and their history.

The MLK Week’s programming also benefits from student contributions. The Student Association for Black Unity (SABU) will hold its annual basketball tournament on Sunday, Jan. 14, to raise money for its Black FLEX conference in February, a student-run leadership conference now in its fifth year and open to the entire campus. SABU will also host a conversation later in the week between its student leadership and the Museums at W&L surrounding the legacy of SABU on W&L’s campus and the museums’ recent acquisition of a jean jacket worn by an early member of the SABU in the 1970s.

“Being involved with MLK has meant a lot for me, the SABU Executive board and our members,” said SABU President Laura Murambadoro ’26. “I think something that is true of all of us at W&L is that we are always eager to learn and engage with each other. MLK is a week of remembrance, but also of hearing from others about the progression of the Civil Rights Movement.”

“It will always be fruitful and lead to a path of better understanding of where we have been and where we are,” Murambadoro continued, “and allows me to have more of an understanding as a leader about what direction we need to take and how I can contribute to that.”

Many students will serve as volunteers at the community celebration in Evans Hall honoring Dr. King’s birthday on Monday, Jan. 15, which invites area children to campus to learn about Dr. King, participate in family-friendly activities and contribute to a Rockbridge Area Relief Association (RARA) hygiene kit donation drive.

“Doing a small service activity that involves creativity and awareness of socioeconomic inequalities helps kids see how their actions can make a positive impact, no matter how small, on bettering our community by supporting each other in times of need,” says MLK Committee member Sascha Goluboff, director of Community-Based Learning at W&L and and interim executive director of the Shepherd Higher Education Consortium.

Student volunteers will also be collecting donations throughout MLK Week. Jalen Todd ’25, a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, Dr. King’s fraternity, will deliver a tribute to Dr. King on Monday in advance of the week’s keynote speaker later that evening. The MLK Reflections dinner, which takes place on Thursday, Jan. 18, invites students, faculty and staff to share reflections on how Dr. King’s work has impacted and inspired them; this year’s dinner will also feature a student musical performance. On Saturday, Jan. 20, W&L’s African Society will host their annual African Society Fashion Show and Dance, where students showcase fashion from all around the continent of Africa and perform African-inspired dances. The Martin Luther King Jr. Remembrance Concert on Sunday, Jan. 21, features musical reflections on Dr. King’s life performed by the W&L University Singers, Cantatrici and the Glee Club.

Tamara Futrell, dean for diversity, inclusion and student engagement and co-chair of the MLK committee, said student involvement in the week’s events connects King’s life and work to today’s students.

“The students are the next generation to continue the legacy of Dr. King and to advocate for justice and equality,” said Futrell.

Read more about W&L’s weeklong MLK celebration here.