Liberty University Law student Eli McGowan said he couldn’t believe his eyes when he realized the day presidential candidate Donald Trump will speak at Liberty University also is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
“I said ‘No, it can’t be,” he said. “I double checked and triple checked. Immediately, it struck me as inappropriate and a lot of my friends as well.”
McGowan said he and some student allies are planning a peaceful demonstration outside of the security perimeter at the Vines Center on Monday. They plan to hold signs with Martin Luther King Jr. quotes and sing songs about equality and God’s love for all.
According to McGowan, they don’t oppose Trump speaking at Liberty, just the day he will speak. Trump is one of many presidential candidates to speak at Liberty University this election season. Others included Ben Carson, Bernie Sanders, Jeb Bush, and Ted Cruz.
Reached by phone Monday, President Jerry Falwell Jr. said inviting Trump on Martin Luther King Jr. Day was a purposeful decision, and it was selected out of several possible dates.
“We chose that day so that Mr. Trump would have the opportunity to recognize and honor Dr. King on MLK day,” he said, adding it’s part of Trump’s plan for the speech.
On Veterans Day, Falwell said, the school paid tribute to veterans at convocation, even though the keynote speaker, Carson, was not a veteran.
“The plan from the beginning was to do something similar for Dr. King for MLK Day even though the keynote speaker is not a civil rights expert,” he wrote in a follow-up message.
He pointed to King’s principle that people should be judged, as King put it ‘not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.’
“Liberty stands for that principle and I believe that Mr. Trump does as well,” he said.
In a lengthy Facebook post, McGowan detailed about a dozen statements and actions by Trump he felt ran counter to the legacy of King.
One of the points he brought up was a housing discrimination suit in 1973, filed by the U.S. government against Trump Management, which was settled.
According to the New York Times, Trump in 1973 called those charges, “absolutely ridiculous.’
“We never have discriminated,” he said, “and we never would.”
McGowan also hit upon allegations Trump mocked a New York Times journalist for his disability, an allegation Trump has denied; Trump’s criticism of undocumented immigrants crossing the border from Mexico; his dismissive comments about Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly; and his comments about the need to “take out” the families of terrorists.
“Mr. Trump uses speech to divide along racial lines, gender lines, ethnic and national lines, and between those with disabilities and the healthy,” McCowan wrote in the post. “He encourages violence against the innocent and the peaceful. He acts as someone above forgiveness and reproach. All of these indicate he is not an acceptable option for a speaker on a day meant to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a man who sacrificed himself in the pursuit of peace, love, and equality.”
Liberty University’s Student Government Association shared the following in a Facebook post last week without mentioning Trump:
“As a student body we should be open to hear any influential person in their field of work. Regardless of whether we agree with their views and opinions it is our responsibility to show Christian hospitality and respect. Showing someone who we disagree with hospitality and respect doesn’t forsake our values as followers of Jesus but helps our witness. Allowing our minds to be challenged as a result of others viewpoints should cause us to look to Scripture in search for truth. Every guest we host for convocation affords us this opportunity”
McGowan is in his first year at the law school, after graduating from Liberty University’s undergraduate program in 2015.
In the spring, he was among students who handed out “I Stand with Rand” t-shirts in support of Senator Rand Paul for students to wear at Senator Ted Cruz’s speech at Liberty University’s convocation. Both men are candidates.
McGowan said Monday’s demonstration will be moral rather than political and the “Stand with Rand” group did not sponsor it.
According to McGowan, administrators have affirmed their right as students to demonstrate peacefully and don’t plan to intervene.
“They can do what they want outside, but they are going to be making fools of themselves,” said Falwell, who suggested few Liberty students support the demonstrations.
He pointed out signs and bags will not be allowed inside the Vines Center, changes he said were made to help speed up the process of people going through security to get in. That took too long when Carson spoke, he said.
According to Falwell, the school plans to set up special heated tents linking DeMoss Hall and the Vines Center. By sending the line through DeMoss and the tents, he said the university hopes to keep guests warm as they wait to enter.
Convocation is Liberty's thrice-weekly student gathering, frequently drawing more than 13,000 people. Attendance at convocation is required for residential undergraduate students.
Instructions for members of the public who want to attend Trump’s speech at convocation:
The event, at 10:30 a.m. in Liberty’s Vines Center, is free and open to the public. Members of the public who want to attend are encouraged to arrive early, the university said in a release, without specifying a time. No tickets are required. The school is providing additional bleacher seating to help accommodate residents interested in attending.
Parking will be available in the school’s garage on Regents Parkway near the Ward’s Road entrance to the school and in the Speakman lot behind Liberty University Bookstore.
There will be signs to the entrance near DeMoss Hall, where lines will form. Everyone will need to pass through metal detectors and no bags or weapons of any kind will be permitted in the arena. A list of additional prohibited items can be found at www.liberty.edu/restricteditems. Students will attend as usual.
The school has said it has taken steps to reduce the time it will take to enter the arena. Students and others faced long waits to pass through Secret Service security when retired neurosurgeon and presidential candidate Ben Carson spoke at convocation in the fall.