Nearly nine years ago a statue of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was erected on the university’s East Mall and the feelings the statue creates for many remain strong today, especially as the Jan. 21 holiday nears honoring his life and legacy.
“When I look at the Martin Luther King Jr. statue, I feel a sense of pride,” says Audra Sneed, president of the Black Faculty and Staff Association. “It is an amazing feeling to know that he cared about his community so much that he took the necessary steps to ensure that his future legacy would be protected and he died fighting for his cause. How can you not get emotional about that?”
The statue, driven by a student-led initiative that started in 1987, was created by husband-and-wife team, Jeffrey Hanson Varilla and Anna Koh-Varilla. It was dedicated in 1999.
The artists are creating a similar statue in Roanoke, Va., preparing it for a February unveiling. The statues will be slightly different. King wears a business suit in the Roanoke version, but the meaning will be equally significant.
Vice President for Diversity and Community Engagement Gregory Vincent says the King statue is a powerful symbol at the university.
“I believe it embodies the principles Dr. King stood for and has had a positive impact on our campus,” he says. “It sends a message that we are aware of the past and are committed to equality and inclusion for all.”
Sneed says the King statue “symbolizes the university’s commitment to foster diversity and community relations on campus.”
Diversity efforts at the university have increased steadily over the years and Vincent has led many initiatives to create a more diverse and inclusive environment for students, staff and faculty of all cultures.
“We work to build stable partnerships internally and externally,” Vincent says. “We work with the provost, schools and colleges to increase the diversity of faculty, staff and student body.”
Some of these efforts include working with colleges and schools to create themed initiatives to recruit a more diverse faculty. For example, the School of Architecture has a Latin American urbanism program and the Department of Art and Art History have created an African American art program.
Vincent is also leading the way to building positive relationships with the community such as a pre-college youth initiative that has been set up around the state.
Vincent credits King as the inspiration for his work.
“I was very young when he was assassinated,” he says, “but as I got older he became a role model for me. He is the reason why I made this my career to work in the field of civil rights. This is an exciting time of the year, a time for reflecting on the life and legacy of a great American.”
“When I reflect on the sacrifices Dr. King made for African Americans as well as the human race,” Sneed says, “it drives me to give my best and be the best I can be. Without his vision for civil rights, I would not have the opportunities that have been afforded to me as an African American female. I did not experience what it was like to have to go through a back door to receive a service, or to drink from a water fountain that read ‘colored.’ Just that in itself keeps me grounded, grateful and appreciative of his work and the true impact it has had on my life. His work inspires me everyday.”
The King statue will be the starting point for the 15th annual community march celebrating his life and the national holiday in his honor. The event begins at 9 a.m., Monday, Jan. 21.
After a short program, the march will proceed to the Capitol, followed by a cultural festival at Huston-Tillotson University that will last until 3 p.m.
More information on the activities honoring King are available at http://www.mlkcelebration.com.