In the 38 years since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., many social and political strides have been made toward achieving his goals of racial integration and harmony. Conversely, it could also be said that his goals have not been realized and that the United States and perhaps even the world have settled for an imitation of his vision.
In light of Martin Luther King Jr. week, the Oracle had an opportunity to speak with Samuel Lamar Wright Sr., associate dean of Parent and Student Relations, Student Life and Wellness and adjunct professor in the Africana studies department, about his thoughts on King’s possible stances on issues such as the War on Terrorism as well as possible roles he may have played in society today. Wright has been a forerunner in creating programs and initiatives to assist black youths and educate about diversity at USF and the community at large. He shares many of the same ideas as King and has seen many of his own goals for education and the promotion of black leadership.
Oracle: So I understand you have somewhat of a history at USF. What was it like when you first came here?
Samuel Wright: I started work at USF as the adviser of minority student organizations in November 1985. It was quite an interesting experience. At that time, there was a significant amount of stagnation, fragmentation of black student groups. They were not communicating with one another. And my job was to pull them together, get them to work together and to be the adviser and help them plan activities together. I worked with them for about eight months and then I left the University and went to the Greater Tampa Urban League to direct their training center.When I left to go to the Urban League, my students said to me, “If we had another job for you that you would be interested in, would you think you could come back?”
That’s when I found out that the position of admissions coordinator (for the recruitment of black students) was available. I applied for the job, and the University hired me.
At that time, it was sparse in terms of enrollment of black students at USF. During that time (in 1987), the enrollment of black students was about 3 percent. In fact, the federal government had said to USF that it might have to remove some of its federal funding because it was on the bottom in Florida for the enrollment of black students.
All over the state I established relationships and campaigned for USF. And I just used what God had given me – my ability to speak and to convince and to articulate – and I got students coming, to express interest in USF from all over the state. I worked like mad to recruit students.
We did have some things in place at that time. We had some scholarships – the Black Scholar Award. And at that time, we had PEP (the Personal Excellence Program) for students who didn’t qualify for the federally funded programs.
The media would call me occasionally and ask me (about USF’s progress), and yours truly would always say that, “Once I see a USF president hire a black vice president over a division, then I would feel like we are reaching more diversity.”
And eventually I was a part of the committee that chose Dr. Harold Nixon, the first black vice president. I would tell them, “Until I see us hiring a black vice president, I don’t know how we’re faring.” And now we have (Vice President of Student Affairs) Dr. (Jennifer) Meningall.
O: That brings me to my next question: Have you seen much change or many improvements in the number of black students enrolled at and graduating from USF?
SW: To some degree I have. In the past 20 years we’ve been able to ascend to new heights. I’ve seen where black students have come in and felt welcomed as a part of the environment. Students from humble beginnings moved on to do greater things.
O: One last question about USF. What improvements would you say need to be made?
SW: I feel that USF is one of the best-kept secrets in the country. At the same time, I feel that USF should (reach) out to the community. I want to see the University esteemed in this community; this would thrust us into the national spotlight. I’d like to see down the road a few buildings named for people from the African Diaspora. I’d like to see student activism soar to heights like never before.
O: If Martin Luther King Jr. was alive today, what do you think his role would be?
SW: I would think that Martin would have forged greater relationships with the Latin community, with the Asian community if he were alive today. I think he would have felt a phenomenal coalition that would embrace a lot of ethnic groups had he been living today.
O: Do you think he would have ever run for office?
SW: I’m not sure. That’s a good question to ask. Who knows? I know he was esteemed that much; that he probably could have won almost anything had he run. Who knows? He may have been the first person to achieve the office of the United States presidency had he lived, because black folks truly admired Martin King. I don’t know what about him that God sent him to do, but he truly was admired by black folks – and others. Some people tout him as being an American figure, but Martin was a global, international figure due to the philosophy he espoused.
O: What do you think he would have to say about the post-Sept. 11 world? The War on Terror? Unwarranted wiretapping – even the Rev. Jesse Jackson being a Democratic candidate two years ago?
SW: Had we had an MLK, 9/11 may not have manifested. Because of him, we may have had a real prominent figure who would negotiate with foreign leaders and advocate nonviolence, even at the global level, not just in America. I think he would have embraced black folks’ aspirations to seek office. I think that would have fell in place with his interest for black folk to have rights as others.
O: President Bush gave a speech on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and he mentioned in his speech that he doesn’t think King’s dream is complete. What do you think about that?
SW: No, it’s not. We’re a long ways from completing. We still have too much hate in America. We still have too many black children going to hell in a handbasket because they’re not being taught for whatever reasons – and there are a multitude of reasons. We still have issues with black businesses and entrepreneurs of a darker hue still have issues with getting bank loans. Home ownership continues to be a problem. There are just a number of things. He would have marveled that Rosa Parks was memorialized like she was. There’s a lot of work to do. We have to learn, as Martin said, “to live together or perish fools.”
O: What do you think King would think about the youth of today, especially because the civil rights movement was really propelled by people like college students and young black professionals?
SW: I’m not sure if he would denounce hip-hop, but I think he would have advocated that artists infuse their music with messages of peace, academic excellence and a number of other things that would send youth a different message. I think he would even be an advocate of more initiatives in the African-American community where black youth could be trained and educated to be leaders.