Wilberforce president on MLK and ‘pivotal’ moment that changed America

Elfred Anthony Pinkard wants the students at Wilberforce University to feel the presence of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who spoke at the school’s 107th commencement in 1965 and has an honorary degree from the institution, the oldest private historically black college in the United States.

Pinkard, who was named Wilberforce’s 22nd president in December, also has a connection to King. Both are alumni of Morehouse College in Atlanta.

Several area colleges on Wednesday are taking a moment to commemorate King’s life and legacy on the 50th anniversary of his death, and Wilberforce is hosting two events.

As the anniversary approached, this news organization asked Pinkard about King’s legacy and what it’s like to be on a campus with historical ties to the civil rights leader.

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Martin Luther King Jr. has some connections to this campus, can you tell me about them?

“Our teaching and learning center building here is named after Dr. King…you can see the plaque that is sort of the cornerstone of that building. But, he was here. In 1965 he gave the commencement and of course Wilberforce being the oldest private HBCU in the nation he was certainly familiar. We gave him and his father an honorary degree on that occasion…In 1965 this was certainly a thriving institution and I’m sure that he wanted to make sure that he was able to speak to young people, so it really sort of made sense for him to come. Of course he came and gave a wonderful commencement and we named a building after him.”

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What’s it like to be on campus knowing it has that historical connection to King?

“Something we say to our students the moment that they get here is that you’re part of this wonderful legacy…So that begins to be a part of how our students view themselves and understand their role and what’s required of them. We really give them this history sort of as a background to anchor them but also as a challenge to live up to this incredible history that they are now apart of when they enter Wilberforce…Reinforcing that becomes a part of what we do for our students.”

Being a black man in leadership, do you feel a connection with King?

“It’s a special question because we share an alma mater as well. So I’ve known of King and that special connection because we’re both Morehouse College graduates and I come to this position understanding that. Of course he’s so iconic. He’s an iconic American figure and he’s certainly iconic within the African-American community…He was an educated man, he was a scholar, we shared the same alma mater, he views education —particularly higher education —as an important part of the liberation of people of African decent. So there are various points of connection that I can certainly relate to.”

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Do you think the students appreciate the school’s historical connections to King?

“I don’t think its organic. I think it’s up to us as educators to make that connection for them. I don’t think that’s peculiar to our students, I think that’s just this generation. Unless they have been given the history…unless it’s reinforced…I just think that’s the nature of youth. I think it’s important for us as educators to make those connections.”

Is it important, especially on the campus of the oldest private HBCU, to recognize the 50th anniversary?

“I think it’s important because it was such a significant moment in American history…It was a pivotal moment. It was a moving moment. I think that young people…should understand that this man gave his life for the freedoms that they now have and in some instances may take for granted. So I think it’s important to…acknowledge this moment in history and how significant the life and message of this particular human being were for all Americans… These young people are the inheritors of that…It’s really important for them at a historically black college to recognize that.”

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