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Realizing King's Vision

GMU reflects on King’s life, school diversity.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would have liked George Mason University.

Ranked one of the most diverse in the nation by the Princeton Review in 2005, George Mason’s student body is a reflection of what King had in mind for the future of education, said Juan Williams, NPR correspondent and author of several books on the Civil Rights Movement.

"This is really a campus where Dr. King can live," said Williams, speaking at George Mason's Martin Luther King celebration Thursday, Feb. 2.

While the iconic status of the most celebrated member of the civil rights movement is well-deserved, said Williams, people often fail to see the human behind the name. Sometimes, he said, people take a view of King as a safe, passive figure in the Civil Rights Movement. People need a real sense of the risks King was taking, said Williams. In fact, he said, the leader was unsure about his mission at first.

"I fear the distortions occur because it's been 38 years [since King's death]," said Williams. "It's been a long time since the real, living Dr. King came into this room."

Williams described the first few days after Rosa Parks’ arrest in Montgomery, Ala. It was 1955, and King was 25, a new pastor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. E.D. Nixon of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) learned of Parks’ arrest, said Williams, and began organizing a bus boycott, enlisting local preachers for their help promoting the boycott from the pulpit. But King was hesitant at first, said Williams. King told Nixon he was finishing a doctoral thesis, just getting used to his congregation, and, to top it off, was starting a family with wife Coretta Scott King. But after some encouragement from Nixon, King agreed to lead the boycott, which lasted from Dec. 5, 1955 to Dec. 21, 1956, and from there took on leadership of the Civil Rights Movement. The rest is history.

IN ITS SEVENTH year, the Martin Luther King Jr. celebration at GMU reflects a sense of community and empowerment at the school, said Kimberly Saunders, director of the Office of Diversity Programs and Services.

"We've taken a moment to realize what we really should reflect on, not just the image of the man but the embodiment of everything he stood for," she said.

The Office of Diversity Programs and Services also awarded students and faculty for contributions to a multicultural campus community. Jonathan McElderry, senior and member of historically black fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha, won the Spirit of King Award for students. Dr. Benson Cooke, a school counselor, won the Spirit of King Award for faculty members. Cooke, who will be leaving GMU next year, started the Black Peer Counseling program at the school.

According to Princeton Review statistics, out of the 17,000 students enrolled in the undergraduate program at George Mason, 50 percent are Caucasian, 17 percent are Asian, 8 percent are Hispanic and 8 percent are African-American. Most of George Mason’s students are in-state, but 4 percent of the student body come from different countries.

The multicultural quality of George Mason’s campus comes from a push to internationalize the curriculum and the foundation of various programs to broaden the school’s ethnic perspective, said associate provost Dr. Marilyn Mobley. In 1992, Mobley founded the African-American Studies program at GMU.

"It doesn't make a difference if you are just around a lot of different people," said Mobley. "You have to learn about all the different backgrounds, too."

The "salad bowl" of students from different ethnic backgrounds also comes partly from the demographic change in the region, said Williams.

"It wasn’t long ago that the community was primarily white," he said.

For some students, the ethnic diversity of George Mason’s student body was the deciding factor when choosing a college. Devon Holland was accepted to both George Mason and the University of Maryland at College Park, but chose George Mason because it was more diverse.

"You can walk to class and hear three different languages being spoken," she said.

Senior Ryan Lowry agreed. Growing up in small-town Bedford, Va., he said, the only way to learn about other nations and cultures was via television. George Mason provided first-hand contact with multicultural life, he said.

"I love the diversity here," said Lowry.