Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium
Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium
“A Time to Break Silence”
January 16, 2006
Good morning! Thank you, Lester, for your many contributions to making our campus a better place for all students.
It is a special day for the University of Michigan community, and I want to welcome everyone who has joined us.
I especially want to offer a warm welcome to our keynote speaker this morning, Anna Deavere Smith. Thank you for sharing your message with us.
We also have with us the newest member of the University community. Dr. Teresa Sullivan will join us in June as provost and executive vice president for academic affairs. She is currently at the University of Texas, but flew here from Austin to be part of today’s programs. Terry, would you please stand so everyone can see you?
And a very appreciative round of applause is due the members of the MLK Symposium Planning Committee for their many, many hours of work that have gone into this month’s activities.
I want to share a little history with you.
Lyman Johnson was a black man — a son of the South and the grandson of four slaves. He was a teacher at the only high school for black students in Louisville, Kentucky, when in 1948 he decided to return to school himself and pursue a doctorate in history.
Upon applying to the University of Kentucky, he was told he could find a “separate but equal” education up the road at the all-black Kentucky State College.
Lyman Johnson sued to be admitted to the University of Kentucky. “I have no apology to make for being a Negro,” he said. “I stand on my rights as an American citizen.”
When the courts agreed with him, he broke the color barrier in his state and became the first African American to attend a university that had been founded 84 years earlier.
His successful work to desegregate higher education in Kentucky came a full five years before the Brown v. Board of Education ruling that ordered all of our nation’s schools to be integrated.
Walter Bergman was a white man — the son of Swedish immigrants who, like Lyman Johnson, became a teacher. In 1961, he joined a handful of individuals to board buses and become Freedom Riders — the first people to test the integration of interstate public facilities in the South.
At a rest stop in Anniston, Alabama, Walter Bergman’s bus was attacked by a group of white men. He was knocked to the ground, brutally beaten, and repeatedly kicked in the head. A second bus was firebombed.
He was 61 years old at the time, the oldest of the riders. His injuries left him permanently paralyzed and he spent the rest of his life — which stretched to 100 years — using a wheelchair.
But he did not remain silent. Years later, he forced the FBI to admit it knew of the attacks in advance, and took no action to stop the assault or to protect the Freedom Riders. Rather, Ku Klux Klansmen were given a 15-minute head start before the police were called.
I do not know if Lyman Johnson and Walter Bergman ever crossed paths, or if they ever compared their monumental stories of struggle and sacrifice.
What I do know is they were both alumni of this great university, and we should forever be grateful for, and inspired by, their courage, their leadership and their commitment to speaking out for equality.
They found it within themselves to break the silence of injustice, and all of our lives are better for it.
I want to commend the organizers of this symposium for selecting the fitting theme, “A Time to Break Silence.” Martin Luther King exemplified leadership with his words and actions, and his unwillingness to accept the status quo.
His work remains unfinished.
For example, I would be remiss if on this great day I did not share my views about the so-called Michigan Civil Rights Initiative. I’ll be blunt: I believe it is wrong-headed. It will turn our state in the wrong direction, at a time when we desperately need to recast our economy and the people who will shape it.
I also believe the political debate surrounding this referendum will polarize our communities, when our efforts should be focused on constructive ways to build broad diversity within the guidelines outlined by the U.S. Supreme Court.
As a great public university, we must widen our doors so that people from all backgrounds can take advantage of the countless opportunities we offer. And one way we can do that is by creating a campus environment that fosters broad diversity.
It is essential that we raise our voices, as individuals and as a university community, to draw attention to prejudice, discrimination and neglect that hampers the fostering of that welcoming environment.
As president of this university, I cannot say loudly enough that our campus has no tolerance for intolerance. Last fall we were hear reports of hate incidents in our community. I am proud of the immediate response from so many who made it clear: this is not acceptable at the University of Michigan. We absolutely do not condone behavior that threatens our friends, neighbors and colleagues.
Our university has made great strides toward creating a campus that embraces all staff, faculty and students. And we have much more to do before we can say we are truly inclusive.
You can help. For our university to move forward and continue to build a community that embraces all people, we must expose the darkness of bigotry. Silence is not an option. I urge you to come forward when you see or hear an act of intolerance. Go to the place in the University where you feel most safe. Talk to your roommate or a professor. Contact MESA or LGBTA. Speak to a dean or a police officer. Tell me.
The songwriter Paul Simon warned:
“Fools, said I, you do not know, Silence like a cancer grows.”
Do not let the cancer of racism and prejudice fester. For the University to grow in a positive direction, we need to know of these unacceptable situations so that we can act upon them.
Dr. King was, of course, a preacher, and he knew that the Book of Ecclesiastes said, “There is a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.” And he cautioned us that, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
Friends, let us all lift our voices, today and tomorrow, and act in the remarkable spirit of Dr. King. Let us follow the examples of our great alumni who fought for civil rights. Let us stand against those who try to divide us.
The time is now.
Lyman Johnson: master’s degree, history — 1931 education certificate — 1932
Walter Bergman: master’s degree, psychology — 1924 Ph.D., education and psychology — 1929 School of Education instructor — 1925-29