Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dream and Oral Roberts University

One of the most iconic speeches in American history took place when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. In it, Dr. King shared his dream that America would live up to its creed that “all men are created equal.” In order for that dream to be a reality, it would take a nation that would provide opportunities for black men and women to have access to opportunities so long denied them in the Jim Crow era, especially in the area of education.

The same year that Dr. King gave his famous speech, Oral Roberts announced his dream for a starting a new Charismatic university. Roberts wanted more from his university than to simply produce good Christian men and women. He dreamed of a university where students, regardless of color or background, were truly equal and had equal opportunities to succeed.

While some Evangelical universities were resisting integration, Roberts had a different vision. In fact, a governmental official in charge of federal funding called him to ask his policy on black people and integration. Roberts replied to the official, “Well, let me give you the bigger policy. ORU is established in three ways. First, to be international. Second to be interdenominational. And third to be interracial.” Roberts’ interracial admissions policy was long before the days of affirmative action and the 1978 Supreme Court decision that permitted race to be a factor in college admissions. When it came to integration, ORU was ahead of the curve for conservative evangelical campuses.

Roberts believed that part of ORU’s mission would be to prove to America that “no black person is inferior.” He declared,

“We have demonstrated to our constituency and our city what is so obvious all along if you had eyes to see. We are the same people. All we need is the same opportunity. Give us the same opportunity, folks and I am telling you, there is no color.

A key moment in Roberts support for the the civil rights movement was in 1978 when Oral Roberts invited Rev. Jesse Jackson to receive an honorary doctorate from ORU for his “untiring endeavors for the understanding and cooperation among all races of this country.” Jackson admired Roberts for his stand on integration. Jackson told the ORU students that he was healed from pneumonia when he placed his hands on the television as a child.

The first open and integrated healing ministry that I ever saw on television, which was our in South Carolina of determining the authenticity of the man and his convictions for he would not allow the cross to be beneath the flag or the culture.”

Jackson was impressed by the number of black students that were in the graduating class. Speaking to the 1978 graduating class he addressed the issues facing the nation and ORU’s role. Jackson commented that ORU embodied the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr., and had “overcome the tension of race.” (Read his full remarks here). He encouraged,

For in the face of this civilizational and educational crisis, ORU has the opportunity to be a light on a hill, a beacon to the nation, of moral educational and racial justice, but know that you live in a glass house. ORU has the challenge of accepting the opportunity of establishing a university where black people and brown people and all of God’s children are integrated into the life of the University — at every level.

“Administration, faculty, department heads, student body, money spent, currículum offered íf ORU accepts this challenge of equity and parity for itself, it will then have earned the moral authority to challenge others to get like us. ORU has the opportunity to be the first University in America to establish an educational community where people from around the world can come here and say that you will be judged totally by the content of your character rather than the color of your skin.

Jesse Jackson receiving an Honorary Doctorate at the 1978 Commencement Service

Jackson’s words of encouragement about ORU’s racial reputation in 1978 attest to the way in which ORU was already emerging as a model among universities in the nation. Slowly, ORU was living out that dream. By 1991, ORU black population had risen to almost 20%. Today, ORU’s student body is majority non-white and continues to grow in its ethnic populations, which now represents over 100 nations.

While progress has been made, the work towards this dream continues in every generation. During the racial unrest of 2020, ORU issued a statement on diversity, re-affirming a commitment to that dream:

“Cultural and ethnic diversity are celebrated at ORU. Though we desire ‘heaven on earth’ at ORU, we also realize we live in a fallen world where cultural and ethnic differences are real and require patience, understanding, and dialogue. We are opposed to racism in any form and to the demeaning of any individual because of their culture or ethnicity. We denounce racism as sin, and its presence among students, staff or faculty will not be tolerated.”

Furthermore, ORU President, Dr. William M. Wilson declared,

We have all grieved at the injustices and inequities that have been portrayed before us multiple times over the last several months in unrighteous acts. My heart is broken for the young black men and women who live under a demonic cloud of intimidation and fear. This is simply not right. We must and we can do much better. Yes, black lives matter and every person deserves deep respect as a unique creation of God.

Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream that has inspired generations of Americans to work for equality among races in America. Dr. King’s vision also influenced Oral Roberts and the men and women who helped establish and lead the university over past 50 years. As a new generation emerges and I believe that same vision will inspire ORU to continue to reach for that dream.

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