Carl Cunningham Jr., Ph.D.

Carl Cunningham Jr., Ph.D.

In August 1991, my parents packed the car for my departure for band camp at Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi. I had dreamt of this day since the age of 6. The extended hours of mastering the trombone had afforded me an opportunity to try out for the famous Jackson State University Sonic Boom of the South Marching Band. My parents spent three hours helping me move my items into the residence hall, and then departed for Mobile.

Here I was, on the campus of a historically black college, founded in 1877 for former enslaved Africans to be educated. I was following my father’s footsteps by attending Jackson State, his alma mater, with my father’s full name. Now I was on campus early to try out for the marching band that had a legacy of musical excellence and showmanship.

I made sure I was at the band room 30 minutes early because I did not want to be late. As the 100-plus freshmen filed into the band room, I thought to myself, “All of these kids are here just like I am. We want so much to be a part of this legacy. I have to do what it takes to be a part of it.” As the band room settled, the drum majors and section leaders entered the room, followed by the band directors. The air literally left the room.

The drum majors talked to us about the legacy of the band program and Jackson State University, and how it was up to us to maintain the legacy. Each band director reiterated what the drum majors had stated. One band director stated two crucial things: “We will teach you how to maintain and sustain the legacy of this band program. But I am here to tell you, some of you will not meet the criteria or standards to keep up with the legacy already in place. Some of you will not make this band.”

For a second, like everyone in the room, my heart dropped to my toes. I quickly snapped out of that brief depression. I knew that I had come from a family of great legacy on my paternal and maternal sides. I grew up in an Episcopal Church in Mobile, Alabama, founded in 1854 by free people of color and former enslaved Africans before the Emancipation Proclamation was signed.

I attended and graduated from Murphy High School, the oldest high school in the state of Alabama, built on legacy and tradition and, now, I was enrolled at Jackson State University, Mississippi’s only comprehensive urban university, founded in 1877. I understood the importance of legacy.

I did make the famous Jackson State University marching band, as well as become the trombone section leader my sophomore, junior, and senior years in college. Within one year, the shoe was on the other foot. I taught the incoming freshmen the importance of sustaining the legacy.

How do you teach and sustain a positive legacy? First, the legacy must live within you. You must eat, breathe, and live the legacy. You must always be the shining example of the legacy. Second, every moment must be a teaching moment. I learned this from my mother. Always reiterate and reinforce the who, what, when, where, and how, regarding the legacy.

I am involved in several boards and community outreach programs throughout the city of Mobile. I often find that organizations (nonprofits, churches, etc.) deviate from their core principals and/or positive legacies. It is important for organizations to always reiterate the legacy piece to their members.

There are times when a negative legacy can infiltrate any organization or institution. But the great thing about legacy is you can turn a negative into a positive. One person can make a difference and change the course of their organization, community, state, the nation, and the world. Be that legacy!!!

Carl Cunningham Jr., Ph.D., is a Cultural Cultivator and Student Developer, educator, life coach, and mentor. He is a native of Mobile, Alabama, and is a graduate of the Mobile County Public School System. Carl is affiliated with Coastal Alabama Community College and the University of South Alabama, where he is the director of the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs. Twitter: @DrSetItOff

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