By Sierra Smith, Communications Specialist
“Forgiveness is not an occasional act. It is a permanent attitude.”
All 410 High School students, save a few absences, contemplated the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s quote projected on the screen at the front of Durnan Auditorium during an assembly on Thursday, January 12. Office of Diversity & Community Life Director Roderick White captured their attention with a firsthand account of being harassed by the Ku Klux Klan as a young boy with his mother in Fayetteville, Tennessee. Referring back to the life and teachings of King, White encouraged the students listening to choose forgiveness even when it requires tremendous effort.
“That really resonated with me,” Addi King '26 shared after the assembly. “It’s a life lesson that I can take with me beyond school.”
White continued with another powerful narrative from his youth. He shared with students that during his senior year at Austin-East High School in Knoxville, Tennessee, he and some 80% of his schoolmates were briefly expelled for their attempts to conduct the Black History Month program they’d previously received permission to present.
As a student government leader, White was instrumental in planning and conducting the program. When the school’s principal locked students out of the auditorium the day of the program and told them to go back to class, White refused and was subsequently expelled along with every student who had left class to attend the scheduled program.
The expulsion was reversed shortly after White’s father, a local pastor, supported him and his schoolmates by reaching out to the media to bring attention to the injustice that occurred, and the Knox County Schools superintendent denounced the Austin-East principal’s actions.
“I’m never one to say that you need to break the rules, but what I am saying is the time is always right to do what is right,” White shared in reference to another King quote.
The program continued with White sharing a third and final lesson from King, “Everybody can be great because anybody can serve.”
To close, White challenged students to apply that final quote to their own lives and, in line with the legacy of King, to pursue greatness through service. After wrapping up his presentation, White answered follow-up questions from High School students and faculty before everyone was dismissed to return to class and reflect on the valuable insights White shared.
“It was an eye-opening opportunity to hear from someone who went through all the things that Dr. King was fighting against. Like even though it was after Dr. King was alive, all this stuff like the KKK was still going on and, even now, there’s work to be done,” Pera McMillan '26 reflected.