Inspiring justice on campus

Using public art to honor history and signal value of an inclusive society

Walkways, walls, lecterns, chairs and benches. Hardly rarities on a college campus. But these standard items, when rendered in bronze and granite on a major University of Dayton thoroughfare, carry great historical significance and critical contemporary purpose.

At this Catholic, Marianist university in Ohio, an artistic arrangement of three aligned chairs, a pulpit, an inscribed wall, a bench and the walkway that passes through it all express a shared commitment to bringing together people from diverse backgrounds to work for justice. This is our memorial to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Simple, powerful

The sculptural monument speaks to me about the importance of higher education’s daily work of educating for a highly diverse society, for justice and the dignity of each person, and for absolute inclusivity on our campuses, in our nation and in our world.

King’s signature moments—the “I Have a Dream” speech, the march from Selma to Montgomery and the garbage workers’ strike in Memphis—were major moments in the civil rights movement. But the movement was just as much about advancing King’s simple eight-word message: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Art history professor Roger Crum, associate professor of art and design M. Gary Marcinowski, and associate professor of art and design John Clarke kept that in mind when designing the “Give Us This Day Our Daily Quest” memorial. It commemorates King’s speech at the University of Dayton on November 29, 1964, just days before he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Norway.

Works of art are often complex entities. Memorials are even more so, presenting the additional dimensions of history, engagement, and meaning as they evolve as works of public art. But with just a few components, the trio of colleagues depicted a simple, powerful message.

Three chairs. One for King and two for community members who would continue putting King’s message into action locally. On King’s chair rests his removed suit coat and gently laid-down Bible—intertwined symbols that his spirit is continually active within the campus community.

The pulpit. A central feature of King’s Baptist tradition from where, in countless churches, he delivered homilies and speeches that inspired and challenged so many to join and advance the civil rights movement.

The wall, bench and walkway. These complete a communal space for small gatherings and classes to come to the memorial to learn and draw inspiration from King’s work and legacy.

The creators deliberately placed the memorial across a high-traffic walkway to invite passers-by to pause and consider the meaning of the place—and take that meaning away for future thought and inspired action. The wall contains the central message of King’s speech on campus—“We have come a long way, but we have a long, long way to go.”

Nearby, on the bench, visitors read King’s more direct statement of urgency: “The time is always ripe to do right.”

Absence. The memorial has no human form, not even of  King himself, who is only subtly suggested by his coat and Bible.

This absence is only in part a sorrowful reminder that King became absent all too soon. But King is both present and absent in this memorial, inviting (indeed challenging) contemplative visitors to see their role in carrying forward the daily work of his mission and the movement. This memorial serves as a reminder of King’s legacy and the struggle for equality and justice.

Individually, these components may be simple, but collectively—like the power of community—they can be a significant force in reminding us what is asked of us to continue the work of creating a more diverse, inclusive and welcoming world, and to work for justice for all.  

Eric F. Spina is president of the University of Dayton.

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