2016 Martin Luther King Jr. Day Celebration Remarks

Jan. 18, 2016

Opening remarks as prepared for delivery on Jan. 18, 2016, in Richardson Auditorium

Today’s King Day gathering is rendered especially meaningful this year because our nation is once again in a period of heightened attention to questions of racial justice.  I hope you will agree with me that it is appropriate to begin this afternoon’s ceremony by considering the relevance of Dr. King’s example to protests that have taken place here and on other campuses over the past year.

We remember and celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King for his commitment to equality, to justice, to humanity, and to social change.  We remember him also for his devotion to non-violent protest.  Dr. King insisted that we must strive for purity not only in our ends but also in the means we choose to achieve them.  In Selma, in Birmingham, in Washington, and elsewhere he showed America the power and the virtue of peaceful demonstration. 

But something troubling is happening in America today.  At a time when students are once again speaking up vigorously about racial justice, their critics are invoking Dr. King’s life not to praise their activism but to disparage it.  For example, a columnist in the Wall Street Journal last week dismissed student protests at Yale University as “not another Selma March or Birmingham battle against Bull Connor and his dogs” but, in his words, as “an ‘emotional stampede,’ by a group of sensitive young people living in a culture of suspicion.”[1]

The author then went on to call for someone to “[put] the ‘long view’ in front of the students … emphasizing the achievements America has made in racial relations in the past decades and from which the Yale students have profited” so that, again in his words, students can “get what they came to Yale for:  a first‑rate education, a reputation for accomplishment, and entrée into a place of responsibility in America.”[2]

Now certainly I agree that America has made remarkable progress in race relations.  So, too, have colleges and universities, including Yale and Princeton.  But that progress does not excuse the injustice that remains.  Nor does it warrant the disparagement of student protestors who call attention to that injustice.

We should remember, first, that the activism now occurring on college campuses has its roots in the Black Lives Matter movement.  Over the past eighteen months our country has witnessed multiple instances in which police officers have used lethal force without adequate justification against black Americans.  The most recent example is the dashcam video showing a Chicago police officer shooting Laquan McDonald 16 times, firing most of those shots while McDonald lay helpless and dying on the ground.  That video, like the pictures of Bull Connor and his dogs in the 1960s, is horrifying.  Our students are rightly outraged.  The nation should be outraged.

We should remember, too, that Dr. King believed that the occasions for peaceful protest went far beyond the circumstances of Selma and Birmingham.  On April 14, 1967, he spoke at Stanford University and delivered a speech entitled, “The Other America.”  In it, he said this:

“I came to see that so many people who supported morally and even financially what we were doing in Birmingham and Selma, were really outraged against the extremist behavior of Bull Connor and Jim Clark toward Negroes, rather than believing in genuine equality for Negroes.  And I think this is what we’ve gotta see now, and this is what makes the struggle much more difficult.”[3]

What difficult struggle was Dr. King talking about?  It was the struggle not simply for desegregation but for what he called “genuine equality”:

“It’s much easier to guarantee the right to vote than it is to guarantee the right to live in sanitary, decent housing conditions.  It is much easier to integrate a public park than it is to make genuine, quality, integrated education a reality.  And so today we are struggling for something which says we demand genuine equality.”

Despite all the progress that America has made, the struggle for genuine equality remains both incomplete and urgent.  I believe that the struggle for genuine equality is at the core of the protests that have taken place at Yale, at Princeton, and on other college campuses over the past year.

We should care about making our college campuses more inclusive and more fully committed to real mutual understanding and respect, but, even more fundamentally, we should care about making this true for our country.  We should care, as Dr. King urged us to do, about what he called the “other America”—about the America where people are not so fortunate as are we on this campus, about the America where people struggle to find decent jobs, to get health care, to educate their children, to be treated fairly, and to live without fear.

In his speech at Stanford, Dr. King recognized the difficulty of America’s long quest for genuine equality and racial justice, but he concluded, as he so often did, with optimism.  He said that one of the things that gave him hope was “the student generation … who will stick with the cause of justice and the cause of Civil Rights and the cause of peace throughout the days ahead.”

Like Dr. King, I take inspiration from the idealism of our students.  Yes, students come to places like Stanford or Yale or Princeton for, as the Wall Street Journal columnist said, “a first‑rate education, a reputation for accomplishment, and entrée into … place[s] of responsibility.”  But I hope and I believe that they come—that we all come, and that we gather here today—for more than that.  I believe we come and that we should come to campuses like this one to learn how to serve and to lead, to raise our voices for justice and for equality and for peace, and to make this world a better place.

Let us remember and celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King today.  And then let us honor him in the year ahead by rededicating ourselves to the struggle for genuine equality, and to the struggle on behalf of the “other America,” a struggle that remains as pressing and as urgent in our day as it was when he spoke so eloquently at Stanford University 49 years ago.  Only by making that struggle our own can we celebrate and honor Dr. King in a way truly worthy of his singular legacy.

[1] Paul McHugh, “A New Semester, A New Approach to Campus Turmoil,” Wall Street Journal (January 10, 2016).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Other America,” Lecture, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, April 14, 1967.