“He understood that it was not going to be finished with him,” Jerry Lherisson ’16, president of Ohio Wesleyan University’s student government, said of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s impact.
“The fact that we are here today, thinking about this, says that [King’s] legacy is then moving forward and that we are moving in the right direction,” continued Lherisson, one of several OWU panelists to speak during a Martin Luther King Jr. Day discussion of the civil rights leader’s life and legacy.
“I also think it’s important to understand that much like those who came before us [and] got us to where we are today, we are then here to help those who come afterwards,” he added.
Lherisson was one of eight panel members, which included current Ohio Wesleyan students, a professor, and several graduates. Meredith Harrison, Women’s House moderator, and Terree Stevenson ’95, director of the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs (OMSA), facilitated the discussion.
OMSA, the Office of Admission, and the Office of Alumni Relations hosted the panel. Stevenson introduced the panel and Harrison asked the questions, which ranged from “How would you define Dr. King’s leadership style?” to “What can current OWU students learn from Dr. King’s leadership and legacy?”
Panel members included Lherisson; student leader Jadé Giordani ’17; politics and government professor Joan McLean; community activist and minister Khadija Garrison Adams ’04; attorney and OWU Trustee Aaron Granger ’93; Chief of Staff to Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman Michael Reese ’90; educator Benita Wright Smith ’89; and community and corporate development officer Darrel Gibson ’87.
For Aaron Granger, a key message of King’s legacy is the importance of radical love and forgiveness.
“The type of radical love that Dr. King displayed was the turn-the-other-cheek type love, radical love. It’s unquestionable that, in the time in which he lived, there was radical hate.”
Khadija Garrison Adams, as a minister, found it important to recognize the role of faith in King’s life.
“Dr. King’s work was not just faith-based,” Adams said. “We often will throw around the term that his cause was morally right but it has become not particularly marketable, market-friendly, to say Dr. King was doing his work because he was Christian, and not simply because he was a Christian, but because he had a profound sense of calling.”
Joan McLean, as a political organizer, credited King with mentoring those who mentored her, namely activist Mildred Jeffrey.
“Jeffrey marched with Dr. King in Selma and Detroit and in Washington, and the words that she gave me as an organizer are the words that I think illustrate who Dr. King was as an organizer… none of us can do this alone.”
Michael Reese said he has found inspiration in King’s later, less-recognized work in addressing poverty regardless of race.
“What’s disappointing to me about today is you don’t hear too many politicians or leaders talk about real economic conditions, issues of working conditions, of living wages, of economic injustice based on where you live and where you were born.”
Jadé Giordani saw King as being a dynamic leader in the movement; both she and Lherisson acknowledged that in today’s world, communication and calls for change often are made through social media, which can be a stumbling block.
“He was the center point of balance and unity between his community and the people he was working with to make change,” Giordani said. “He was restorative, he was positive, and he was also charismatic. He used his words to get people on board with him. His words had a lot of power.”
Darrel Gibson found an additional impact of King’s work in elevating the consciousness of the nation, by forcing people to acknowledge the harm and violence caused by Jim Crow laws.
“You need to have a change agent, as others have said,” Gibson said. “You need to have to have someone who could do that, whose persona could carry that.”
For Benita Wright Smith, Dr. King’s work is not over ‒ she still sees the need to promote equality and tries to do so herself by addressing illiteracy as an educator.
“I definitely believe that there’s a lot for us to do. … I hope that you, along with your education, are doing service. That is the rent we pay for being on this earth, that you have to be serving outside of yourself and outside of your interest and paying it forward. It’s not giving back, because we’re standing on people who (came before us) ‒ we need to pay it forward.”
University President Rock Jones spoke at the end of the discussion, thanking the alumni who participated in the panel for their work today and their service in general.
“It’s been a fascinating conversation,” Jones concluded. “We’ve talked about legacy and inspiration, vocation and calling. We’ve talked about justice and injustice, and the final word of Aaron is the word with which I think we should all part, and that is ‘To do our part.’
“We recall the legacy of Dr. King, the particular vocation which he claimed and lived, and for which he died,” Jones said. “And each one of us has that opportunity to claim the vocation and the purpose for which we live, and to which we devote our lives.”
The community’s Martin Luther King Jr. celebration also included a Jan. 18 worship service at William Street United Methodist Church and a Jan. 19 MLK Breakfast Celebration at Ohio Wesleyan.
View photos from the Panel Discussion.
View photos from the Breakfast Celebration.