In its storied 26-year service to the University of Kentucky, the Martin Luther King Jr. Cultural Center has undergone many changes from location to leadership to programming. With a new calling to address the most vital needs of the students it serves, the center has been launched with a new purpose, new leadership, new programming, new goals and a new name — the Martin Luther King Center.
The UK MLKC will focus on supporting the university’s diversity goals by developing and offering programs and experiences designed to prepare all students for the social, cultural and political challenges of an increasingly complex, multicultural, global community, according to its new mission statement. The center is “grounded in the conviction that the development of self-knowledge and cultural competence based on an enlightened worldview is a vital dimension to becoming a genuinely educated person.”
The new interim director of the MLKC, Kahlil Baker, said his vision for the Martin Luther King Center is that it be “a hub for intellectual dialogue on diversity and be recognized as living Dr. King’s dream of inclusivity in support of student success.” Baker is a former counselor for CARES, the Center for Academic Resources and Enrichment Services, a division of the UK Office for Institutional Diversity.
UK Vice President for Institutional Diversity Judy “J.J.” Jackson said the new direction is part of a shift to underscore even more the center’s role in improving student success.
“As an institution, we want to address UK’s persistent issues of increasing the retention rate of our students, increasing the diversity of our Honors Program, and trying to enhance student achievement so that students are doing more than just graduating.
“Retention is an academic issue, diversity in the honors program is an academic issue, and increasing student achievement is not only an academic issue; research has shown that when students are involved in the life of a university, their academic performance improves,” she said.
Jackson did not have to look far for the inspiration she needed to find new purpose for the center. She simply looked to the life of the center’s namesake.
“I believe that if we all interpret Dr. King’s vision in the same way, in the right way, he would want to help all underserved people to become a stronger part of the institution, the life of the campus and the university’s success,” she said.
When Jackson named Baker interim director, she also appointed Gerald L. Smith as Scholar-in-Residence to the Martin Luther King Center and leader of its academic programming. With research interests in African-American history, the Civil Rights Movement and African-Americans in Kentucky, historian Smith was a co-editor of “The Papers of Martin Luther King Jr.: Advocate of the Social Gospel, September 1948-1963, Volume VI (2007).” Smith, associate professor of history in the UK College of Arts and Sciences, is working on two projects, the Kentucky African American Encyclopedia, which is expected to be published fall 2015, and a book-length study of the history of African Americans in Kentucky.
This fall, Smith will take students to historic sites in Kentucky Camp Nelson and Mammoth Cave and will use his role as the scholar-in-residence to help collect archival materials on Kentucky African Americans and further develop an oral history collection on African American ministers in Kentucky.
“I have a passion for making history alive and relevant,” said Smith. “In doing so, I seek to encourage students to think historically and critically. I want to introduce them to historical debates, questions and subjects that will spark their interest in learning more about the past and its connections to the present.”
He will encourage students to engage in scholarly research through the Nunn Oral History Center and Special Collections and Digital Archives. He will work with the King Center staff to recruit students to serve as research assistants on projects relating to sports history and Kentucky African American history, said Smith.
As the King scholar-in-residence, he will teach a spring semester course on the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. Students will study King’s speeches, sermons, religious theology, leadership, family, the African American church and the civil rights movement as well as the controversy surrounding his assassination.
Jackson’s goals and inspirations coalesced into the current plan to “increase the academic and intellectual involvement of the center across the campus, undergirded by some of the cultural programming it has been known for all these years, but recognizing that today’s students need to see the integration of the cultural and the academic as intentional across this campus.”
“I know in my heart the King Center can be a rich, rich resource for every group on campus when its effect and impact is spread across the campus. That was the vision that I had for the center when I came here and saw its potential,” Jackson said.
She says she has seen that dream come to life in recent months as student-developed programming has birthed a fresh attitude and bringing black students, Asian students, Hispanic students and white students to the center.
“Every event that I have gone to recently has attracted a mix of people. In fact, a couple of white students actually endeavored to join black sororities and asked me for recommendations to support their bid to join. I believe that is what King would have wanted us to do, to work toward building something that everyone could learn from, benefit from and enjoy. Because that is the avenue by which we hope to bring this university to a better place, to a higher ground,” said Jackson.