“We call this history to mind…because King’s witness still calls each of us to turn inward, to look inside ourselves, name our spiritual poverty in an age of uneven abundance, build up our capacity to love, and join the movement of imagining a world otherwise,” said Associate Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life and Contemplative Practice Reverend Samuel Speers on the importance of remembering Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy in his invocation. Celebrating Dr. King, the impact of those who worked with him and members of the Vassar community whose outstanding service has been underappreciated, Vassar hosted a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Breakfast for Vassar community members on Monday, Jan. 21 in the Aula.
By opening the Breakfast with these questions on how to properly commemorate King’s life, ministry and struggle for justice, Speers’ invocation reflected the event’s goal of honoring those who have worked to improve their respective communities. According to Special Assistant to the President and Secretary of the Board of Trustees Wesley Dixon, a key organizer for the event, the MLK Breakfast recognized Vassar community members for the “invisible work” they do on MLK day, as King’s success was scaffolded by those who worked with him. “We thought it might be inspiring to view MLK Day not just as being about an individual, but also about the community of people around him who made his work possible,” said Dixon in an emailed statement.
Following Speers’ opening, Associate Professor of History and Director of Africana Studies Quincy Mills remarked on service and humanity in King’s life. “[King] believed that people genuinely like to do good deeds, but they also like to be praised for it,” he wrote in his remark notes (Quincy Mills, “Martin Luther King, Jr.,” 01.20.2019). King called this desire for recognition the drum major instinct. Mills discussed how King connected this instinct to consumer culture and race prejudice—two expressions of the inclination to assert superiority.
For King, service was a solution to the ills of the drum major instinct. King once said, “Everyone can be great because everyone can serve.” Aligning with this view of greatness, Mills lauded lesser-known individuals who supported and molded King’s vision, including Bayard Rustin, Stanley Levison and Ella Baker, saying, “[They] were exemplary people who embodied that selflessness to serve without attention” (Quincy Mills, “MLK”).
The Vassar community members recognized at the MLK Breakfast similarly served without need for acknowledgement. Staff, faculty and administrators nominated the event’s honorees for their contributions to campus, piloting of new projects and demonstrated commitment to serve beyond their job descriptions. “We picked three historical figures…who supported and molded Dr. King’s vision,” said Dixon on the nomination process. “The idea was that nominators would nominate individuals on campus whose contributions or efforts were reflected in the stories of [Stanley Levison, Ella Baker and Bayard Rustin,] who surrounded Dr. King.”
By recognizing those whose work has been underappreciated and honoring historical service to humanity, the MLK Breakfast rewarded those who were not seeking praise: altruistic individuals who were simply invested in the betterment of their community. As Mills concluded in his remarks, “Let us all use this day, this moment to commit or recommit ourselves to something much bigger than ourselves” (Quincy Mills, “MLK”).