Every Martin Luther King Jr. Day, colleges and universities send out hollow statements about race, unity, and peace. They pluck the most convenient quotes, strip them of any context, charge, or political command, and use his words to present a sanitized and pacified version of his politics — one that allows these institutions to pat themselves on the back and leave unquestioned their own involvement in racism and other systems of injustice. Sure, there may be calls for reflection, or maybe even vapid promises to learn from MLK Jr. and ‘do better.’ But, ultimately, these institutions are more invested in lip service and maintaining an orderly presence rather than truly enacting justice.
Tired of the predictable posturing of higher education every year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I’ve assembled a short list of 10 ways colleges and universities could honor Dr. King’s legacy if they truly gave a damn about his politics and social calls. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it would be a damn good start.
1 — End on-campus military recruitment
MLK Jr. was staunchly anti-war and internationalist, speaking out against the US’s violence in Vietnam. He understood the US military to be a tool of imperialism, enacting violence and exploiting the world in the interest of the white elite. The role of the US military in the world has not faltered, with a grocery list of countries the US military has intervened in, either in quiet or under the noble banner of freedom, destabilizing local governments for the sake of political and economic interests, no matter the toll. We also understand military recruiters to be highly predatory, particularly targeting Black communities to treat as fodder. If colleges and universities are to honor MLK’s legacy, then they must help nip US militarism in the bud by ending all on-campus military recruitment.
2 — End all contracts with the US military
In addition to ending on-campus recruitment, higher education institutions must put their wallet where their mouth is by ending all contracts with the US military, including grants. We must understand, as MLK Jr. did, that militarism is one of the greatest evils of our day: “When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered” (Beyond Vietnam). If higher education institutions truly value justice and people over profit motives, then it is imperative that they cut all support of and from the US military, including non-war-related projects and grants. This can be done at the individual, departmental, and institutional level, and it is, therefore, the responsibility of all within higher education to ensure that our work and our paycheck do not go to supporting the US military.
3 — End all contracts with the police
The history of the police in the US, much like that of the military, is one of upholding the interests of the white elite and violently suppressing any challenges to the power structures that be. With the increasing militarization of US police forces, so too has police violence become an increasingly pressing issue of racism and public health. Racist violence isn’t just an unwanted consequence of policing in the US — it is fundamental. Therefore, in the fight towards justice and liberation, the abolition of the police is unwaveringly necessary, and that includes removing police from schools and ending contracts with them. We must imagine a world without police where care, not criminalization, is paramount.
4 — Cut all ties with the CIA and FBI
From extrajudicial ‘black sites,’ to rigging foreign elections, to backing coups, the CIA has no shortage of faults entrenched in them from their very inception. Particularly through programs like COINTELPRO and CHAOS, the CIA and FBI have largely functioned to squash any challenges to the US’s power structure and global rule. The CIA & FBI were especially forceful domestically during the Civil Rights Movement, with the FBI documentedly trying to coerce MLK Jr. into killing himself. Knowing not only the threat the CIA and FBI pose to justice across the globe, but also their direct attacks against Dr. King himself, if colleges and universities seek to uphold his legacy, there is no ethically defensible reason to not immediately cut all ties with the CIA and FBI.
5 — Cut all ties with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), particularly TSA and ICE
The Department of Homeland Security, since its founding in response to 9/11, has functioned largely to enact racist and xenophobic terror rather than truly prevent further harm. The TSA and ICE, agencies that act as particularly caustic tentacles sprouting from DHS, are widely known to be ineffective at anti-terrorism. What they do successfully, however, is terrorize immigrants and undocumented people — those who have been illegalized or otherwise placed into social precarity by the very system that played an active role in displacing many of them. Immigration enforcement measures not only enact direct racist violence against undocumented people and their communities but also have a rippling effect that exacerbate other injustices as well. More so, deportation and other violent immigration enforcement mechanisms are disproportionately used against Black people. To honor MLK Jr’s legacy as an internationalist, a fighter for Black liberation and the liberation of all, colleges and universities must cut all ties with DHS and its arms, particularly TSA and ICE — this includes ending any on-campus recruitment, severing any existing contracts, and directly opposing and barring any future on-campus activity.
6 — Divest from all prisons (private & public) and jails
Prisons, and their lesser-criticized cousin jails, are by no means necessary, not only creating more harm than good but also preventing true pathways to accountability and social healing, and yet society has convinced us of their supposed necessity. The heavy racial disparities within mass incarceration are not a product of ‘bad policing’ or a ‘broken system,’ a symptom of ‘racial bias’ within these systems, but emblematic of the primary functions of mass incarceration as an evolution of the Jim Crow era. There can be no liberation in the US so long as prisons and jails exist, as they are fundamentally racist institutions. Therefore, to work towards the post-racism world MLK Jr. envisioned, it is imperative that we engage in the “bold project” of abolition, ridding society of prisons and jails and all their analogous offshoots, and undoing the system of mass incarceration in full. For colleges and universities, this means fully divesting from all prisons (private & public) and jails.
7 — Divest from all companies involved in war and militarism
The arms of the US’s military-industrial complex do not simply end at the walls of the government but creep through countless companies and across borders. From weapons manufacturers, such as Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, to companies like Amazon that provide technological goods and services to the military, there are countless companies who directly contribute to the US military and its violence. There is no justifiable reason for a school that purports to honor MLK Jr’s legacy to be in any way aligned or affiliated with these companies, financially or otherwise. Looking internationally, this includes standing against companies involved in war crimes overseas, particularly divesting from companies involved in the Israeli government’s violence in Palestine. To truly honor his legacy, colleges and universities must divest from all such companies involved in war and militarism.
8 — Erase all student debt
In his speech “The Purpose of Education,” Dr. King said, “It seems to me that education has a two-fold function to perform in the life of man and in society: the one is utility and the other is culture. Education must enable a man to become more efficient, to achieve with increasing facility the legitimate goals of his life.” Student debt, however, serves as a grave barrier towards accessing such utility and culture. Student debt is a two-fold problem: the threat of it discourages people from seeking higher education, and those who do take it on in the pursuit of higher education often find themselves shackled by predatory loan practices and interest rates. Educational debt disproportionately harms Black people, not only due to the racial wealth gap but also fueling and reinforcing the racial wealth gap. If we are to create a future where we are all capable of reaching our educational heights, and if we are to tackle the wealth gap that is continuously imposed on the Black community, then colleges and universities must erase all student debt — canceling the existing debt that they can and paying off the rest of it. Sure, this would be a financially profound undertaking, but it pales in comparison to the price of continued injustice — the value of justice far outweighs that of profit.
9 — Ensure workers’ rights in full
Dr. King was a staunch proponent of labor rights, understanding economic bondage and the poor treatment of the working class as a grave injustice. Although this component of MLK Jr.’s politic is much less popular and widely known than his fight against racism, it is no less part of his legacy. Therefore, to uphold his legacy within their own terrain, colleges and universities must ensure their workers’ rights in full. This includes, but is by no means limited to, paying a living wage and cost-of-living adjustment for all employees (including student employees), upholding employees’ right to collective bargaining and unionization, and contract-based employment rather than at-will employment through third parties that avoid school liabilities.
10 — Cut ties with any affiliate known to be racist
Saving the simplest for last, schools cannot rightfully declare themselves to be fighting for justice if they allow racist actions to occur within their midst. It’s no secret that colleges and universities are filled with students, staff, and faculty who range from subtly racist to full-blown white supremacists. If schools want to honor MLK Jr’s legacy, then there is no ethically justifiable reason for them to willingly continue to affiliate with these people, especially those who are actively being paid and platformed by these schools; to allow their affiliations to continue is to, at best, implicitly support their views and the racist violence they enact. A school cannot morally say that they stand for justice against racism while simultaneously payrolling and platforming known racists. To take a step towards enacting justice against racism, schools must fire, expel, and otherwise deplatform those who are known to uphold white supremacy. Bureaucratic reasons of tenure and loose calls to ‘freedom of speech’ be damned, colleges and universities must choose — do they want to honor Martin Luther King Jr’s legacy, or allow the festering of racist ideology within their premises. The two simply cannot coexist.