Scholar & author: To honor MLK, honor his ideas

In an annual program dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr., Boyce Watkins reminds the university community “change is not comfortable.”


Every student, professor and staff member plays an important role in diversifying the campus community, a prominent social commentator said Wednesday, and those roles are ongoing as society continues to address the social inequities that Martin Luther King Jr. himself sought to eradicate.

Scholar and author Boyce Watkins also wants people to know that four decades after King’s assassination, it’s not enough to simply espouse admiration for the slain civil rights leader. “If we respect Dr. King, we must also respect what he stood for,” Watkins said. “Dr. King is not a man. Dr. King is a spirit.”

Watkins spoke Jan. 11 for the noontime Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemorative Program in Whitley Auditorium, and during his remarks, the noted national commentator took aim at barriers to the ongoing challenges of rectifying previous wrongs.

Watkins reminded the audience that despite today’s reverence for King’s ideas, at the time, his message was perceived as too radical. Even his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C., wasn’t truly wanted, as he spoke at the very end of a long program, Watkins said.

“The adversity that comes with promoting diversity, with promoting equality, is something that we forget,” he said. “In America, we’ve got a long way to go. The truth is that change is not comfortable. Change is not easy. Change is certainly not cheap.”

Nor is overt racism the largest obstacle that needs to be confronted.

“In America, racism is a problem in some places, absolutely. But I’d argue that’s not the biggest problem. I think the real problem is not racism, but rather racial inequality, which is a product of racism,” said Watkins, noting that addressing institutional bias requires examining the past. “The reality is that we have to talk about history. The past has everything to do with the present and the future.”

The program is part of a series of events on campus this week to honor the life and legacy of the slain civil rights leader, who would have turned 83 on Jan. 15.

Formerly a member of the finance faculty, and currently a scholar-in-residence in entrepreneurship and innovation at Syracuse University, Watkins also is a distinguished scholar with the Barbara Jordan Institute for Policy Research, and he was previously a visiting fellow at the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics and the Centre for European Economic Research in Germany.

He has appeared in such publication as the Journal of Small Business Management and the Journal of Economics and Business. In addition to publishing scholarly articles on finance and investing, Watkins is an advocate for education, economic empowerment and social justice, and has made regular appearances in various national media outlets, including CNN, Good Morning America, MSNBC, Fox News, BET, NPR, Essence Magazine, USA Today, The Today Show, ESPN, Tom Joyner Morning Show and CBS Sports.

As part of Wednesday’s program, the winners of Elon University’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Humanitarian Essay Contest were announced. Sponsored by the Multicultural Center, the contest, which is designed to promote King’s vision for a more humane nation, is open to middle school students in Alamance and Guilford counties.

Seventh grader Stone Parker of Aycock Middle School in Greensboro, and eighth grader Victoria Gonzalez of Blessed Sacrament School in Burlington, were named the 2012 winners of the contest. Each received $200, a plaque and tickets to Elon basketball games. The university received more than 100 entries for the contest this year.

In his welcoming remarks prior to Watkins’ talk, Elon University Provost Steven House praised King’s priorities. “His life is very important, and his goals and his vision have been important to the university,” House said. “We here at Elon have a special connection with Dr. King because of the alignment of our values with those that he cherished.

“I hope we are re-inspired to build the kind of world Dr. King could only dream about.”

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Planning Committee at Elon University is comprised of the African and African-American Studies program, the Black Cultural Society, Greek Life, the LGBTQ Office, the North Carolina Teaching Fellows program, the Office of Student Activities, the Multicultural Center and University Advancement.