By Abigail Lauten-Scrivner, UM News Service
MISSOULA – The University of Montana’s annual President’s Lecture Series will launch in the new year with a visit by acclaimed writer and professor Dr. Lerone A. Martin.
Titled “Becoming King: How a Wavering Teenager Became a Global Icon,” the lecture will serve as UM’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day principal event. The talk at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 26, will be held at UM’s Alice Lund Instructional Auditorium and can be viewed live on Zoom by registering in advance. It is free and open to the public.
The President’s Lecture Series brings speakers to campus who discuss issues and ideas that animate public conversation. Martin, who serves as faculty director of Stanford University’s Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, said his upcoming lecture will reexamine King’s life and teachings in a way that may be new to audiences. In providing a more complete look at the organizer’s experiences and beliefs, Martin hopes attendees will discover newfound power in King’s story.
“I want to reintroduce people to Martin Luther King,” Martin said. “What I hope is, in the end, it will inspire folks who maybe don't see themselves as having any power to change their community. I hope they feel empowered by hearing his story.”
Martin is well acquainted with King’s story. As director of Stanford’s King Institute, he helps oversee the preservation and promotion of King’s work and legacy. That includes compiling the entirety of his writings from birth to death, including all his letters, speeches and even high school papers. Meticulously chronicling King’s entire existence has highlighted facets of the activist’s life that were either previously unknown or overlooked.
“Americans believe that they know him,” Martin said. “But in order to get King to where he is as a national icon, he’s had to be stripped down.”
Too often, Martin said, King is distilled to his most famous line in his most famous speech, “I Have a Dream,” simplifying the global icon’s work and beliefs to only his nonviolent action against racism. While King’s impact on advancing racial equity cannot be understated, focusing solely on that aspect of his activism fails to encompass the entirety of King’s legacy, the roadblocks he faced while forging it and his dream for a better America.
As the title of Martin’s upcoming lecture suggests, King wavered before he set himself on the path to greatness. Before he became a gifted orator, minister and proponent for civil disobedience, King struggled in school, had doubts about religion and suffered traumatic, racist experiences.
Even as King’s influence burgeoned, he grappled against organized resistance from those who saw his vision for a more equitable nation as an alarm bell. Yet today, Martin said, King’s peaceful marches are often regarded as movements that were widely welcomed.
“They were not welcome – these were things that people found to be inconvenient. That was the point, they forced people to examine the ugliness,” Martin said. “People think that King was actually really well liked. We love him now, but the FBI considered him public enemy No. 1. His popularity declined significantly when he came out against the Vietnam War.”
King’s stance against war and militarism, as well as his beliefs about economic disparity in the U.S., are aspects of his activism that often are overlooked in history but contributed significantly to the resistance he faced by contemporary opponents, Martin said.
Simplifying King’s work solely to his efforts on racial justice allows an easy comparison between the strides made since the civil rights movement of the 20th century, yet it furthers the misconception that King’s dream for a more equitable U.S. has largely been accomplished.
“If King were able to speak to us today, I think he would be excited and applaud some of the things he’s seen,” Martin said. “I also think he would be saddened.”
Martin intends for those who attend his lecture to leave with a newfound understanding of King’s dream for a better future. He hopes the audience will gain a new sense of the global icon as a conversation partner whose words and wisdom can still be used to advance movements for equity and justice today.
In addition to Martin’s role as director of the King Institute, he serves as Martin Luther King, Jr., Centennial Professor of Religious Studies at Stanford. He previously was a faculty member of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics and director of American Culture Studies at Washington University. Martin has a bachelor’s degree in religious studies from Anderson University, a master’s of divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in religion in U.S. history from Emory University.
Martin is the author of the award-winning book “Preaching on Wax: The Phonograph and the Making of Modern African American Religion.” His upcoming book, “The Gospel of J. Edgar Hoover: How the FBI Aided and Abetted the Rise of White Christian Nationalism,” is slated to publish in February. Martin’s other writings and commentary have been featured in the New York Times, Boston Globe, CNN, PBS and more.
The President’s Lecture Series is sponsored in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities, supported by the Humanities Institute and UM departments. Learn more about the President’s Lecture Series online.
Contact: Dave Kuntz, UM director of strategic communications, 406-243-5659, email@example.com.