Exploring Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy at La Salle

January 13, 2021

The civil rights leader’s impact remains alive and relevant through community engagement opportunities and documents in University Archives.

While Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. may never have visited La Salle University, his legacy remains intact through documents, press releases, and photographs maintained by La Salle University Archives.

In 1968, following Dr. King’s assassination, the Urban Studies Center at what was then La Salle College sponsored an annual Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Lecture Series. A program booklet for the 1970 installment still exists in University Archives. The event featured guest lectures, film screenings, a fashion show, and a concert. La Salle College’s Black Student Union organized the event. The student organization, known today as La Salle’s African American Student League (AASL), has been an educational and cultural fixture for awareness and inclusivity at the University for more than 50 years.

The 1970 program book lists Ronald Washington, ’70, who co-founded the Black Student Union, as one of the event’s organizers. He helped bring champion boxer Muhammad Ali to campus for a lecture titled “Black man getting educated,” as well as Philadelphia civil rights activist John Churchville for a speech, “Truth and Revolution: Path to Freedom.”

Thinking about his father’s mark at La Salle “makes you emotional,” said Colin Washington, ’13, who earned a communication degree from La Salle, “because in the midst of putting one foot in front of the other, you’re not thinking about your reputation, impact, and pride. You’re thinking of the work at hand—cleaning the neighborhood, visiting a hospice, and even putting together a social program for African-American students because they had few options at the time.”

“My father lived in the message and themes that Martin Luther King Jr. embodied,” Colin Washington continued, “and it was an equally necessary model for me and my brother (Brandon, ’10) to live by— human equity and connections across different ethnic groups, gender orientation, creeds and personal beliefs. For my family to be connected with Dr. King’s legacy at La Salle in even this small way is an honor and a testament to the work we and so many civic leaders put forward in trying to make change in ours and so many communities.”

Annually, La Salle hosts the Martin Luther King Jr. Interfaith Service to celebrate King’s impact and offer an open forum to the La Salle and broader Philadelphia communities for exchanges and reflections. The pandemic forced the cancellation of this year’s event, which would have been the 10th installment.

In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we examined the intersection of La Salle University’s students, faculty, and staff with Dr. King’s legacy:

Dr. King appeared in the 1967 edition of La Salle’s yearbook. Many University students and faculty, including two Christian Brothers, attended an October 1966 rally at which Dr. King spoke. Sponsored by the Interfaith Interracial Council of Clergy, the event brought together several nationally renowned religious leaders to discuss civil rights.

The La Salle Collegian covered the event for its Oct. 14, 1966, edition.

“As Americans, we face a moment of great decision; whether to walk the highways of freedom or the lowroad of man’s inhumanity to man,” Dr. King told those at the rally, held at the former Philadelphia Arena, at 46th and Market streets.

Dr. King stressed the importance of civil rights in modern society. According to the Collegian, Dr. King addressed those in attendance shortly after 58 Black churches had been burned in Mississippi.

“Our power doesn’t lie in bricks, stones, or Molotov cocktails,” Dr. King said. “It lies in union and in readiness to stand up courageously and non-violently against what is wrong.”

Eighteen months after Dr. King’s rally in Philadelphia, and less than a year after his photograph appeared in the University yearbook, he was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn., at the age of 39.

A march Dr. King had organized, the Poor People’s March on Washington, held one month after his April 1968 death, went on as planned. The University’s Faculty Senate endorsed the march, as did La Salle’s student council, said La Salle Faculty Senate president Charles A.J. Halpin, in a May 3, 1968, announcement housed in University Archives.

“The Senate endorses two proposals, one ‘in support of the Poor Peoples’ Campaign … and the formation of a La Salle College Support Committee for the Poor People’s Campaign’ and a motion that ‘strongly recommends to the administration of the college that they take some action to unify the entire college behind this most important endeavor,’” the Faculty Senate memo reads.

“The Hebrew prophetic tradition and the Christian gospel tradition bind the emancipatory hopes of the Lasallian educational perspective with the living legacy of King,” said La Salle’s Vice President of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Br. Ernest J. Miller, ’95, FSC, D. Min. “To witness King’s prophetic quest for creating the ‘beloved community,’ La Salle’s ongoing work is to build an educational community rooted in justice and peace that embraces anti-racism, equity, and individuality within community.”

—Christopher A. Vito