Dan Ott, a professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Monmouth College, believes Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. would be deeply concerned today to see America in an almost perpetual state of war. Ott also thinks Dr. King would consider mass incarceration a social ill in the U.S.
“It’s wonderful to remember and celebrate King’s victories and what he was able to accomplish for our society with the people that he worked with,” said Ott.
“But we have to remember that the struggle still continues and that there’s much justice that still needs to be won.”
Ott’s area of expertise is American Christian thought. He also does scholarly work on the philosophies of peace and nonviolence, so he has a keen interest in King’s legacy. Ott called King a quintessential American thinker and a serious academic.
Ott said King pondered whether to go into academia or pastoral ministry.
“And he chose pastoral ministry at least in part because he thought that was the more socially active role – that he could make more change on the ground, concrete change in people’s lives, if he went into pastoral ministry,” Ott said.
Ott said King grew up in the church. His father was a pastor and social activist so King was raised in an environment that encouraged him to work on improving the lives of others, particularly African Americans.
Ott believes the Black Lives Matter movement is working in the same spirit as King and the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s. He said another movement that’s gaining notice is the Poor People’s Campaign, which he said is picking up on the work King was doing at the time he was assassinated on April 4, 1968.
“He was planning another mass march into (Washington) D.C. but this time with poor people from all over the land, from every ethnic background,” said Ott. “And they were not only going to march to D.C. and have a rally there, but march to D.C. and camp themselves out there for a while and demand that the government see them and see their suffering.”
Ott is encouraged that Americans remain interested in King and his legacy. But he is worried that people only remember the high points of King’s career and forget about the hard work he did, the opposition he often faced, and that his successes came at the end of long struggles that came with a price – some people gave their lives for the cause.
Ott is part of a group that for several years has organized MLK Day activities at Monmouth College. The school canceled afternoon classes on MLK Day this year so students could participate in service activities in the community.