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In honoring MLK, a reminder to 'not stop there'

Elon Law's 2019 Martin Luther King Jr. Keynote Address featured observations from an Elon University leader whose dissertation explored the resilience of black children from a community that was once in the middle of America’s school desegregation fight.

Elon University Associate Vice President Randy Williams

What did the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. have in common with descendants of “the crippled generation,” African-American children in Virginia’s Prince Edward County who were denied a public education for several years during the Civil Rights Era?

For one Elon University administrator, the answer is simple.

“Though they all had developed an optimistic mindset, the ‘second generation’ and Dr. King also acknowledged the challenges that were ahead of them,” said Elon University Associate Vice President Randy Williams. “For the second generation, their parents (who were the children denied public education for five years) made them aware they were in a racist society and that they were going to be treated unfairly simply because of the color of their skin.

“These parents conditioned their children to produce exceptional work in school, never settling for average, because ‘average’ is not good enough for a black person who wants to succeed. Even more important, these parents ensured that their children knew that they were not inferior to any other person and that they will achieve greatness despite the racism that they would surely encounter."

Williams delivered Elon Law’s Martin Luther King Jr. Keynote Address on January 24 to dozens of law students, faculty, staff, and members of the public. His remarks centered on the plight of children left without a public school in Prince Edward County from 1959-1964, a saga outlined in the book “Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County,” which served as Elon University’s Common Reading for the current academic year.

Prince Edward County leaders shut down public schools for both white students and black students rather than comply with school desegregation orders that followed Brown v. Board of Education. But once the schools were closed, those same county leaders used tax dollars to open a private institution serving exclusively white students.

Williams brought personal experience to his lecture. He earned his doctorate from the College of William & Mary after completing a dissertation that examined the resilience of the “crippled generation’s” descendants.

“To this day, I still get a strong negative reaction from the story of children being denied a public school education,” said Williams, the father of two girls. “That feeling for me is amplified even more knowing the reason is racism.”

Williams told his Elon Law audience that he sought to give current meaning to “but I wouldn’t stop there,” a phrase drawn from King’s speech in Memphis the evening before his assassination. Despite King’s assertion that a doctrine of white supremacy holds a strong grip on American society, he was optimistic for future progress in advancing justice.

“Dr. King highlights how this doctrine hurts not only people of color, but also millions of underprivileged whites whose egos are fed by this racially ascendent ideology that does not also feed their stomachs,” he said. “Both the 'second generation' and Dr. King remained optimistic while embracing their harsh realities.”

As associate vice president for campus engagement, Williams serves at Elon University as a member of the university president’s leadership. His responsibilities are in three university divisions: Student Life, Academic Affairs, and University Advancement, and his role allows him to strengthen Elon’s role as a national leader in high-impact practices and engaged learning.

He holds a Ph.D. in educational policy, planning and leadership from the College of William & Mary, a Master of Science in Counselor Education from Longwood University, and a Bachelor of Science in physics from Hampden-Sydney College.

Eric Townsend,
1/26/2019 8:05 AM