Where it all began: Eric Love, the student who started the MLK Day March, returns to his alma mater to speak on MLK’s Legacy.

Courtesy of Eric Love

Today, the Martin Luther King Jr. Day March from Boise State to the capital draws crowds, sometimes in the hundreds, each year to commemorate the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) But the march began over 30 years ago, with one student. 

In 1998, Eric Love started the Martin Luther King Jr. Day March, and got Idaho to recognize MLK day as a state holiday. Love realized that Idaho was one of the only states in the U.S. that didn’t recognize MLK day as a state holiday when he was called into work, and realized classes weren’t canceled for universities, but were for primary schools. 

“I, with the help of others, started the King events because we were one of four states that didn’t have a King holiday,” Love said. “I was just saying, Idaho shouldn’t be last.”

For Love, his time at Boise State was influential in his development in equity work and as an activist. Love, at the time, was the first black student body president, and the first black homecoming king. 

“The black population was 0.29% when I lived there, and when I attended Boise State, I think we had like 15,000 students at the time, and we had about 115 Black students … everything I did was like the first,” Love said. “I felt proud that I was making history but I was also like, I also was thinking like, it’s the ‘80s ‘90s you know … the Civil Rights Movement was in the ‘60s. Why am I the first in the ‘90s? So I just thought we were running a little late, but I also felt really, really proud and really honored.”

Love partnered with local Native American, disability, black and Latino groups to get their candidates to win homecoming king and queen. 

“I walked into the bookstore and there’s a photo right there of me as homecoming king with the queen, and our queen at the time was in a wheelchair,” Love said. “And so we all kind of got together and we voted our candidates and it happened to be a student from Barrier Busters and one from Black Student Alliance, which was me. So I’m sure she was the first homecoming queen in a wheelchair, like I was the first black king … But that kind of collaboration with each other —  building alliances, building coalitions, inviting people to the table — I think that that’s what we need to continue to do.”

Even before coming to Boise State, Love knew he was meant for diversity and equity work. Love spent his early years in England with a white mother and an African American father, which shaped his desire to work in diversity.

“I also felt that there were times when I was younger, that [to] black kids I was white, [to] white kids that I was black and so I had to play with my cousins. And that was fine too,” Love said. “So I knew that I was really different, so I sometimes tell people that I belong nowhere and everywhere — like I don’t fit in. There’s places I don’t fit in, but I still belong.”

Love moved to Mountain Home, Idaho with his mother when he was ten. 

At the time, the black population in Idaho was minuscule and Love would meet people who had never met a black person before. 

“Sometimes students would say, or kids would say, ‘well, you’re the first black person I ever talked to.’ And I remember thinking to myself, if I’m the first then however this goes will determine how they treat the next person,” Love said. “So I wanted to make sure that we had a really good exchange. And so if they asked questions, even if they were kind of, if I thought they were dumb questions, I remember I just always had a lot of patience. Like, I remember people would ask if I sunburn, … if I turn red when I’m embarrassed, [or] if my hair sticks to velcro. These are just things that little kids would say and I would just be patient and answer their questions. And I think that was me becoming a diversity educator.”

While Love was successful in getting MLK day established, he faced many challenges along the way. At first, the president of the university, Dr. John Kaiser, was out of town when he first started campaigning. At the time, Love was hounded by the media about whether or not the university and the president were racist. 

“They’d be like ‘Dr. Kaiser is unavailable for comment. Is he racist?’ And then they put the mic in front of me and I would be like, ‘I haven’t met him. So I don’t know. But I don’t think so.’ He’s a university president. I don’t think he’s racist. I just don’t think he knows how important King is to some of the students that go to Boise State, or as important as he is to the community’,” Love said.  “So because I didn’t fall into that trap, Dr. Kaiser called me to his office when he did return home and he said ‘I loved how you handled yourself. I love what you’re doing. You handled everything with poise. I want to start the King Committee’”.

Kaiser then asked Love to serve in the committee alongside faculty and staff, and gave the committee $10,000 to start. Kaiser told love if he needed additional funding he would need to raise it himself. 

“So that was a great start. And so we put a week’s of substantive events together. And we also wanted a keynote speaker and the first one happened to be Martin Luther King the third,” Love said. “But one of the challenges [was] when we went to the student senate, ASBSU senate. There were some really conservative senators that didn’t agree with bringing Dr. King, Dr. King’s son to the campus.”

Love had to go back three times to get the funding approved, as the ASBSU at the time denied his first requests. 

“I remember them saying ‘how is this speaker gonna benefit the campus exactly?’ Like thousands of people potentially could see him, like hundreds can hear him speak directly, and if our film they can rebroadcast it on you know, public access or whatever,” Love said. “They just kept saying no, and so that was a challenge, and then also lobbying the state legislature. There were people that just said ‘I’m from another generation, I will never support this bill’. But at least they were honest, and they weren’t rude.”

Love shared that not everyone at the time was as cordial, and he recalls receiving death threats and hate mail. 

“I wasn’t calling people racist. … I was just saying, Idaho shouldn’t be last, and we’re a beautiful state with amazing people. We need to pass this bill so we don’t get labeled as racist…I think it was excessive to get death threats for pushing for a holiday,” Love said. “Again, I was a student pushing to honor someone who I felt helped make more true the promise of the Constitution. ..I think we’re still not 100% there but the civil rights movement and the work of Dr. King helped make more true the promise of the Constitution. And so I thought I was doing something great. I think he’s an American hero, not just an African American hero.”

After MLK day was made a state holiday, Love received letters saying they didn’t want their tax dollars going towards a King holiday, or that he owed someone money since they could no longer work that day.

Despite this, Love had support from the people around him, both on campus and at home. 

“My mom was calling different legislators in eastern Idaho and she was influential in Mike Crapo changing his vote in favor of it,” Love said. “We have to continually do marches or rallies or whatever we could to make sure that people will still have the King holiday on their mind, even though the holiday was over.”

At the time, Love had no idea the march would continue to today. 

“It’s really emotional. It’s very moving. I had no idea of what kind of impact it would have and what kind of resilience,” Love said. “I also know that during the King holiday that there’s a couple of different campuses, a few different that have events that I started but it all started with Boise State, so I’m honored. I’m thrilled. I just love that something I started 34 years ago continues to this day. It’s very meaningful.”

Love was also glad to see that today ASBSU is involved in the MLK Living Legacy Committee and with the MLK Day March. 

“To see this year that ASBSU was so involved … I was so impressed by the student leaders at Boise State. It just warmed my heart and made me so proud,” Love said. “(It) made me a little emotional like, wow, I might have helped influence some of this. But yeah, I felt great. It was awesome that the King Committee is working so closely with ASBSU this year. And I hope it continues.”

Love’s diversity work didn’t stop at Boise State. After campaigning to get MLK recognized as a holiday and founding the MLK Day March, Love graduated with a bachelors in degree in social sciences, with an emphasis on political science and psychology in 1991 and then began his masters at Idaho State University. 

There, he founded an equity and diversity internship program that has become a fellowship program and expanded to over twenty participants today. Now, he works as the director of staff diversity and inclusion at Notre Dame University. But his time at Boise State still remains a treasured memory for Love. 

“My proudest achievement would be pushing for a King holiday. By you know, just organizing marches and rallies, being interviewed by the media, testifying in front of the state legislature,” Love said. 

The governor at the time, Cecil D. Andrus, signed the bill into law and thanked Love at the ceremony. 

“I was there and he, as he was signing that, he thanked a lot of people like Senator Mary Lou Reed from up north and and several others [like] Marilyn Shuler from the Human Rights Commission. And he said ‘There’s one more person I have to thank and this probably wouldn’t have happened [without him]’. I still get choked up about it. He said ‘I want to give this pen to Eric Love. And he handed me the pen. I put it in my pocket, and I still have it,” Love said. 

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