Reflecting on Dr. King’s Legacy

Dear members of the campus community,

Nearly sixty years ago, in October 1962, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood at the pulpit in Wait Chapel and delivered a speech to the audience of 2,200 Wake Forest students, faculty, and staff assembled. He spoke these powerful words that echoed across his all-too-short life and now, in our current times, should again reverberate in our collective consciousness:

“We must have faith in the future… Somehow, we must believe that there is something at work in the universe to bring about good in society. And so that faith in the future must tell us that [today’s problems] can be solved. Why? Because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” 

The timing of Dr. King’s visit to Wake Forest and his words are especially noteworthy. Just months before, Wake Forest’s Board of Trustees had voted, 17-9, to integrate the campus. Dr. King was the first Black man invited to speak on campus following this decision.

When he came to Winston-Salem, Dr. King’s influence on the civil rights movement had not yet reached its full, national prominence; but the impact of his work was rapidly gaining broad-based recognition. In addition to serving as the principal voice of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, founding the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, and organizing desegregation campaigns across the South, Dr. King was also maintaining an intense speaking schedule. Throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s, he traveled to churches, colleges and universities across the country to preach and share his message of justice and equality.

When he spoke on our campus, Dr. King was less than one year away from participating in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where he would deliver a speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, cementing his place in American and global history. Indeed, Dr. King’s concluding words in Wait Chapel foretold those he would use for that occasion on August 23, 1963, calling for men and women of all races and religions to lift their voices together to sing “Free at last!”

Dr. King’s enduring legacy and calls to action during his life resonate profoundly today. The work of social justice remains unfinished, and it is ours to carry forth. I believe that as a great university we are both obligated and well prepared to “bring about good in society” and find solutions to pressing problems. One way we do so directly is by acting on Dr. King’s call to “remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character [is] the goal of true education.”

Although the winter storm has postponed our planned joint celebration with Winston-Salem State for today, I hope you will still take time to reflect today and every day on our faith in the future and the “why” as spoken by Dr. King on our campus nearly 60 years ago.

May we dedicate ourselves to the pursuit of both knowledge and character, and to finding solutions to build a campus and a world that is more just and equitable for all.

Sincerely,

Susan R. Wente

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