President’s Message to the Mercer Community on Recent Events

June 1, 2020

Fellow Mercerians:

Like many of you, I’ve spent a great deal of time over the past several days trying to think of how to respond meaningfully to the tragic killing of yet another African-American individual by an officer sworn to protect us. I’ve read a variety of institutional statements issued over the weekend and earlier today. I know they are sincere expressions of concern and grief, but they somehow nonetheless feel inadequate for the moment – at least to me.

Seven years ago at convocation, we commemorated the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s address where he shared his dream for America, as well as Mercer’s integration in 1963. We celebrated genuine progress that had been made over that 50 year-period, but we spent much of our time during that convocation focused on our failure to become a nation where people are judged, in the words of Dr. King, by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. We talked about deficiencies in educational outcomes, income inequality, and disparities in access to health care — disparities tragically apparent throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

The year of that convocation, the nation’s attention was drawn to the death of Trayvon Martin. A year later it was Eric Garner, then Michael Brown, then Freddie Gray, and then Ezell Ford, Breonna Taylor, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Botham Jean, Dominique Clayton, Ahmaud Arbery and now George Floyd. We know that there are many, many others whose names don’t make it into the press. African-American colleagues have shared with me the disheartening reality that they’ve had to teach their children that it’s simply not safe for them to do many of the things that their white friends can do. In some important ways, things seem worse today than at the time of convocation seven years ago. Today, it doesn’t feel like we’re making progress.

I want to say something meaningful – something that will help. I haven’t wanted to put out a “meager epitaph.” My words feel as inadequate as those that have already been issued by many others. Perhaps simply sharing grief and anger on behalf of our community at yet another senseless police killing of an unarmed African-American human being is what is needed. I think, however, that we need to search our souls – all of us, but especially those of us who are white. We need to examine ourselves and ask what each one of us can and will do as individuals tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that to realize the just society of Dr. King’s dream.

Bill Underwood