The Day Dr. King Died

Professor Bart Schultz (left) and Dr. Timuel Black discuss Dr. King’s life, legacy, and message at a Civic Engagement event on April 4th. 

Professor Bart Schultz (left) and Dr. Timuel Black discuss Dr. King’s life, legacy, and message at a Civic Engagement event on April 4th. 

Photo by Jean Lachet / University of Chicago

By Maria del Toro, Class of 2019

The death of Dr. King was so dramatic that it caused activity all over the country because he was missed, because he offered so much in terms of hopes and dreams and his leadership.

-Dr. Timuel D. Black

Historically, there has been a strong relationship between business and activism. Those Booth students enrolled in “Business, Politics, and Ethics” this quarter with Professor Brian Barry can speak to that fact: an entire class is devoted to assessing the impact of multinational companies divesting from apartheid-era South Africa, and the role of corporate social responsibility in enacting change.

Today, the relationship between business and activism continues to evolve and leaders must choose how to respond to it in an often highly divisive climate. Ongoing reflection and meaningful dialogue by both sides is necessary to implement large-scale change. One such dialogue was held at the University of Chicago earlier this month in a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

On April 4th, the Civic Knowledge Project at the University of Chicago hosted Dr. Timuel D. Black, a civil rights activist and oral historian who worked directly with Dr. King and helped organize the March on Washington. Now 99 years old, Dr. Black spoke about Dr. King’s legacy on the 50th anniversary of his assassination in Memphis.

The conversation was facilitated by Executive Director of the Civic Knowledge Project, Bart Schultz. Schultz is an activist academic who teaches and publishes primarily in philosophy. He has been teaching in the College at the University of Chicago for more than thirty years and is now leading the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Initiative. The initiative is designed to research the roots of Dr. King’s philosophy of nonviolence and his role in the civil rights movement, and to call attention to the ongoing relevance of his life and work, with a special emphasis on his connections to the City of Chicago.

Chicago Business reached out to Schultz to discuss the anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, the ongoing work of Dr. Black, and how Booth students can apply their lessons of leadership as we embark on our careers.

Maria del Toro [MDT]: The Civic Knowledge Project is a program of U of C’s Office of Civic Engagement. What are the objectives of the Project and what work is currently underway?

Bart Schultz [BS]: The CKP actually predates the Office of Civic Engagement.  We were founded in 2003, by MacArthur "genius grant" winner Danielle Allen. At that time, we were in the Humanities Division, and we have always maintained a deep commitment to the humanities as part of our programming, which involves building better, reciprocal community connections.  For example, our work with Prof. Timuel D. Black has helped many people at UChicago, including incoming classes of students can better appreciate the rich history of the South Side and how important it is to do meaningful community engagement work.

[MDT]: On the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. the Civic Knowledge Project hosted a conversation with Dr. Timuel D. Black. Why is it important to continue to observe this anniversary? Who is Dr. Black and why did you select him as the speaker to commemorate this event?

[BS]: Prof. Black is the living memory of Chicago's South Side--an utterly amazing individual who at over 99 years of age is still continuing his important work as a civil rights activist, historian, and educator.  Prof. Black worked directly with Dr. King, helping to organize the Chicago contingent for the 1963 March on Washington, and his unflagging admiration for the causes Dr. King championed is evident in his ongoing efforts to advance what Dr. King called the Beloved Community, a world of social justice.  The battle against racism, militarism, poverty and other social injustices is as important as ever.

[MDT]: The program featured music of the civil rights era. What were some of the pieces that were included, and how are they symbolic? How has their meaning evolved?

[BS]: Well, of course, We Shall Overcome was practically the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement.  But I was very glad to hear Precious Lord, which was King's favorite. It was in fact that song that King was requesting at the very moment of his murder.

[MDT]: Dr. Black is now 99 years old. What do you believe is his greatest legacy and how can we honor it in our work at U of C?

[BS]: Prof. Black, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Fr. Pfleger, and many more of the great figures involved in the CKP's MLK Initiative are really in accord about how important it is to "keep hope alive," to continue the struggle for social justice that Dr. King so brilliantly represented.  I think that all of us can be inspired by the example of Prof. Black--his life is something that the entire UChicago community should honor and take inspiration from. He is a perfect case in point of how important it is to "talk to the elders," and of how, for all the problems we face, there really is no alternative but to try to keep moving ahead.

[MDT]: There has been a lot of activism on campus at U of C in recent weeks on a variety of issues. For example, Chicago Boricua Resistance protested at the Institute of Politics Event “Puerto Rico’s Financial Future” and there was a rally in the quad about the shooting of student by UCPD last week. What role does activism play at U of C today?

[BS]: Democracy, as John Dewey always urged, is a form of culture, not simply a set of political institutions, and as such a crucial part of genuine democratic citizenship is the type of active involvement represented by such protests.  How could we truly honor Dr. King, Prof. Black, and company if we did not recognize the crucial role that political protest plays and has always played in the growth of a more democratic form of life?

[MDT]: Booth strives to produce the future leaders of business. Of the many reflections Dr. Black shared, what were some of the key insights on leadership and driving change that students can apply as we pursue our careers across a broad range of roles and industries?

[BS]: There are many forms of leadership, including leading from behind, which was the form Nelson Mandela took from Dr. King.  And leadership goes with followership--the followership that enables leaders like Dr. King to have an impact. Prof. Black became a leader by recognizing how he had to follow and learn from Dr. King, and Dr. King himself was never one to underestimate the power of the people. And today, both Prof. Black and I would agree that we need to be following the leadership of the various women's movements, and the young people protesting gun violence.  They are leading the way!