Monday, August 2 2021

Q&A: MTSU President Sidney McPhee reflects on life, legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

MTSU President Sidney McPhee talks to Sidelines about the new science building. Photo by Meagan White.

Photo by Meagan White / Sidelines Archive 

As Martin Luther King Jr. Day arrives, men and women across the United States reflect on the life and legacy that the civil rights titan left behind. Although King died 50 years ago, the words he spoke still echo throughout cities, towns and college campuses. MTSU President Sidney McPhee has said that, like so many Americans, King’s actions have impacted him in a palpable way. Read below for McPhee’s consideration of the life and legacy of King.

In general, how would you say that King’s life and legacy has impacted your life?

I had the privilege last month of touring the city of Montgomery, Alabama, on the day before our football team won the Camellia Bowl there. I was able to see Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where King served as its pastor and where he organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott from its basement office.

I also visited the Rosa Parks Museum at Troy University-Montgomery and reflected on King’s leadership during his days in Montgomery and the courage and resilience put forward by Parks as they set into motion such necessary and monumental change for our nation and world.

The experience reinforced for me that I, and so many others like me, are standing on the shoulders of King and the leaders of the movement they sparked. My opportunity to serve as president of this university, and indeed so much in my life and career, might not have been possible if not for their sacrifice and determination.

Why would you say King was so effective in his aims to change society?

This has been said by many, including me, about the inspirational and motivational gifts that King possessed. As you well know, more than a half-century ago, King helped change our nation with his famous speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. Think about the paragraphs from that speech that resonated with the most emotion. They did not begin with, “I have a plan.”

Rather, he inspired people by sharing his dream, creating a vision that others came to share. His simple declarations made us see things more clearly and act with more clarity. He had many gifts, but I so deeply admire his ability to speak with such power and presence, uplifting us all and showing us a way to live in peace and harmony. But, he was adamant that such peace and harmony be built on a non-negotiable foundation of justice and equality for all. He demanded this country live up to its ideals.

If King was still alive today, do you believe that he would say that we have much farther to go in regards to race relations?

At a panel discussion last week in Nashville, I said that diversity is not only the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do. Our goal at MTSU is to prepare our students to succeed in a global society, which I believe is aided by recognizing and experiencing other cultures, ethnicities and backgrounds. But, to your question, I think we still have a lot to come to terms with in regards to race relations, and we all have a responsibility as citizens, in an increasingly diverse nation, to do our part in working toward that more perfect union.

How can students and citizens honor King’s legacy on a daily basis?

Treat each other with respect. Serve others. Keep learning and seeking knowledge, like I did in my visit to Montgomery.

We at MTSU are proud that our student body is so diverse. In fact, our diversity exceeds that of the state’s population, and we’re proud to be one of the most diverse universities in the country.

Take advantage of the many great opportunities on our campus to expand your horizon, such as Monday’s candlelight vigil, as well as the many other lectures and enrichment opportunities available throughout each year to our campus community and wider community. My hope is that our students take full advantage of our campus diversity, in the spirit put forward by King, to build new relationships and friendships and learn new perspectives.

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