Martin Luther King, Jr. Day - Keynote Address
January 19, 2004
by President Mary Sue Coleman
Good morning! Thank you for that introduction, Lester, and thank you for your tireless efforts on behalf of diversity on our campus.
It is an honor to speak to you today, and to welcome Professor Lani Guinier to our campus. She has been a strong and outspoken advocate for civil rights and equality for decades, and we all owe her significant thanks.
And I am delighted to welcome two of our distinguished Regents: Regent Martin Taylor, and Regent Kathy White.
One year ago, I addressed the audience on this day celebrating the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
One year ago, we were waiting for our day in court—the Supreme Court of the United States. A great deal has happened in the past twelve months.
Many of you joined us for our day in Court, on April 1st of last year. I cannot tell you how thrilling it was to emerge from the Court on the day of the oral arguments in our two admissions lawsuits, and to see the thousands of supporters in front of the Court. This is my chance to thank all of you who made that trip.
We had another extraordinary day at that Court, on June 23 rd.
That day, the Supreme Court told us that we could consider race as one of several factors that would ensure a strong and diverse student body. It was a landmark day in civil rights in our country, and all of you who supported our cause should take great pride for the role you played. The pictures of our students were on front pages around the world, as you embraced the decisions, and embraced each other on the Diag on that memorable day.
As a result of the rulings of the Court, we have devised a new undergraduate admissions process that is allowing us to gain a more holistic picture of all our applicants, and which is going to give us another remarkable freshman class. Our new process is allowing us to maintain our strong and unwavering commitment to academic excellence and to diversity.
Everyone who is admitted to this University is highly academically qualified, and we are proud of our diverse and brilliant student body.
The impact of the decisions in our lawsuits goes far beyond the State of Michigan. I have heard from educational leaders across the nation that they are very grateful to the University of Michigan for taking such a strong and principled stand on the issue of affirmative action in admissions.
But ironically, all we fought for is at risk because of an initiative that seeks to limit the ability of Michigan universities and colleges to consider race as one of many factors in admission.
The language of the initiative would change state law in a way that would prohibit us from using the fair and balanced tools that the Supreme Court provided. This initiative wants to eviscerate the language affirmed by the Court. It is no coincidence that our state was chosen as the next battleground for affirmative action.
We have seen the negative impact of similar initiatives in the states of California and Washington, and I am determined to do everything possible to make sure that the citizens of Michigan understand what is at stake, and that they comprehend the unintended consequences.
This semester, our University is commemorating the great victory in the case Brown v. the Board of Education in 1954. That also was a landmark case in civil rights, and as many of you heard last week, the Brown sisters gave vivid testimony to the indignities they suffered in the days of “separate but equal” school facilities.
They knew there was no equality then, and we all know we must keep working toward the ideal of equality.
I want to tell you today, that the march toward equality will continue at the University of Michigan.
We will need the help of all of you to make sure that we continue to offer the opportunity of a great education to students like those I have met from the suburbs of Detroit, from the city of Detroit, from the Upper Peninsula, from Mississippi, and Guam, and across the globe.
And we will remain dedicated to the excellence that all of you represent—every student I meet brings an astonishing intellectual and cultural heritage to our great University, and together, you create an amazingly textured community of scholars.
As you know, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1964. I want to look to his words as we continue to strive toward a future full of hope and opportunity for every child in this country. In his Nobel Prize speech, he told us, “[Our] faith can give us courage to face the uncertainties of the future. It will give our tired feet new strength as we continue our forward stride toward the city of freedom. When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds and our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, we will know that we are living in the creative turmoil of a genuine civilization struggling to be born.”
We must all remember his words in the days to come. We must continue to contribute productively to his vision of “creative turmoil.” Our feet may get tired, but we must never fail to move forward.
One year ago, we had no idea of the great victory we would achieve at the Supreme Court.
In the coming year, we will be asked to stand up for our principles on many occasions. I will continue to advance our goals on diversity across our state and across our nation.
One year from now, I want us to meet in pride as we again celebrate our commitment to diversity and excellence. Join me in committing to that goal.