As a professor at a Catholic university in Bismarck, Peter Huff said it's important for students to understand how Martin Luther King Jr. operated.
Huff, a professor of theology at the University of Mary, spent the latter part of his Abrahamic religious traditions class on Monday to talk with his students about King and what they know about the iconic man.
But beyond teaching about King on MLK Day, Huff devotes several days of the year to educate students on the Baptist minister: his life, his words and, more importantly, how he applied the basics of Christian ethics to an unjust society.
"(Students) have fragments of a story of a major chapter in American history, just fragments of it, and I think it's a disservice to the people who work so hard to create a more just society, to let that story go simply in fragments," he said.
Huff's interest in King dates back to growing up as a young boy in Atlanta. Huff, now Catholic, was raised in a Baptist church, so he developed what he called a "kinship over racial lines" with the young pastor.
Huff was 10 years old when King was assassinated, and he recalls the next day in school when a classmate made a racist remark about King and something "clicked."
"I think my conscious awakened, maybe for the first time," he said. "I still remember that moment as kind of the beginning of my vocation."
Huff owns a collection of King's complete works, including his speeches, sermons, even his school papers. A whole row of his extensive book collection in his office is devoted to King.
Huff will tell his students about how King received a C grade in a public speaking class in college, letting them know that even if you cannot do well in something, you can improve.
"I take particular interest in him as a thinker; we think of him as an activist, which he certainly was, but he was a really sophisticated theologian," he said. "I tell my students this is what you can do with a theology degree: Change the world."
It's critical for students to also understand how King, particularly, was a Christian thinker, he said.
"(King isn't) just taking secular principles and applying them to society, but he's saying, 'Let's take the actual teachings of Jesus and apply them to society in a way that everyone can benefit," Huff said.
Huff's class was not the only space where University of Mary students learned about King's teaching on Monday. Izabella Fredericksen, a junior, said, in one of her classes, she and classmates opened with a prayer stemming from King's famous, "I Have a Dream" speech.
"I remember this one particular sentence like, it does not matter white, black, yellow, green, we all have life and it’s important, and we have integrity and dignity," she said. "That was just inspiring because so many years have passed since that moment, and to be reminded of it and how far we’ve come as a country and the relationships that we’ve built, it’s nice to be reminded of it and to thank Dr. King for his influence."
Huff also was selected to lead a MLK Day service Monday night at Trinity Lutheran Church in Bismarck. The event was sponsored by the North Dakota Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Commission, and it was supposed to feature the acclaimed religious historian Albert Raboteau, of Princeton University, but the speaker canceled due to being sick.
Huff on Monday night shared his experience growing up with King, his own transformation and why we need King.
King shines a light on disparities, even today, he said.
"Certainly there’s been good change — all sorts of things are possible now that we're not in 1968 when he was assassinated — but still there’s ugly racism. Sometimes it’s under a sugar coating of — if you’re in the Midwest, we call it 'nice' — but there’s still inequality, still injustice and still many institutions that need to be changed," Huff said.