Published: Thu Jan 8, 2009The nation’s first African-American president will be sworn into office on the day directly following this year’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday on Jan. 19.
“Those two days symbolically span decades of achievement in the growth of this country,” said Marc Burnett, Vice President of Student Affairs at Tennessee Tech University.
“In terms of recognizing and providing equal rights, our country has come a long way in a relatively short time,” Burnett said. “My own children never questioned the possibility that a black man could be elected president, but my grandparents wouldn’t have thought that my children and I would ever see it happen in our lifetimes.
“My children have grown up in a literal land of opportunity, but my grandparents thought there were some opportunities that would always be closed to black people,” he continued. “If they were still alive today, this year’s inauguration would be monumental for them. They would be ecstatic.
“If Dr. King were still around today, I imagine that he would be smiling on inauguration day as well — but I believe he would also say that it’s not over, and that we all have to keeping working together at making things better for others,” Burnett said.
The importance of observing the holiday is recognizing that King “fought for more than just the rights of blacks; he fought against inequality of any kind,” Burnett said.
And even though significant strides have been made post Civil Rights movement, inequality is still prevalent both in the nation and throughout the world.
Here in our own country, even as we prepare to inaugurate our first African-American president, the percentage of young black men who are incarcerated is disproportionately high compared to the nation’s population as a whole, for example, and their educational attainment levels are disproportionately lower, Burnett points out.
Infant mortality rates for African-American babies are also much higher than infant mortality rates for the population as a whole.
“Those statistics tell us that there is still work to be done, admittedly some of it coming through self circumspection,” Burnett said.
“Moreover, it’s been said that Sunday is the most segregated day of the week in America because black and white people still generally don’t worship together,” Burnett explained. “If Dr. King were here today, I think he — as a minister — would be concerned about that trend.”
For many people, their places of worship serve as foundations for their lives. For Burnett, the teachings and personal instruction from his grandparents also served as a foundation for the qualities he tries to express every day in his own life.
As one of seven children of a single mother who spent much of his time living with his grandparents, Burnett’s early life was one of poverty — but that didn’t stop his grandfather from teaching him at an early age to always treat others the way he wished to be treated.
“To me, that means helping everyone I possibly can — and I learned a long time ago that not everyone who needs help looks like me,” he said.
That’s because Burnett said he noticed that help — from diverse people and sources — was always available for him when he seemed to need it most.
“Even though my family’s income was low, there always seemed to be someone who would come along and help me at pivotal times, and those people weren’t all African-American,” he said.
“Helping others is a choice anyone can make at anytime, and for me, it begins with trying to help every student who walks into my office,” Burnett said.
Those simple lessons of helping others and treating them fairly are qualities that directly embody King’s hope for all people to be judged by the content of their character, Burnett continued.
“Dr. King’s legacy is something that should be celebrated every day, year-round,” he said. “Black history is not just about black people. Black history is our country’s history, everyone’s history, and it should be celebrated within the general fabric of our history.”
Where will history go from here?
Burnett said he hopes the people of this country will welcome and embrace their first African-American president.
“Regardless of who our nation’s leader is, the American people are facing some challenges right now that will mean all of us having to work together if we overcome them,” he said. “If we do that, we will be coming closer to Dr. King’s vision of unity than we ever have before.”