Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium
January 21, 2008
I’d like all of us to thank Dr. Lester Monts for his thoughtful work in making our campus a better place for all students, staff and faculty.
It is a pleasure to welcome the community to the University of Michigan’s 22nd annual Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium. We have extraordinary speakers and presentations throughout the day, including one that will begin in a few moments with our keynote speaker.
I want to offer the warmest of welcomes to Lou Gossett Jr. and thank him for his years of creativity, his talent and his activism. I know we are all eager to hear his message.
Of course, none of the activities planned for today and the coming weeks would be possible without the diligent work of the MLK Symposium Planning Committee. Please join me in showing our appreciation to these faculty, students and staff members for their commitment and many hours of hard work.
That hard work includes identifying and exploring a theme for the Symposium. This year, we are examining words written by Dr. King when he was jailed in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963.
Dr. King went to Birmingham to protest the segregation that gripped the city; city leaders responded by jailing him. In defending civil disobedience and non-violent protests, Dr. King wrote: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Those powerful words are the theme of our Symposium.
Members of the Michigan community work for justice every day. It happens through teaching, creating and sharing knowledge, sharpening the critical thinking skills of a new generation. It happens through research that explores how to provide clean drinking water in the poorest communities. It happens by providing free legal services to those in need. It happens through outreach to teachers and students in under-funded schools.
What does justice mean to you?
Perhaps you see justice as access to reliable, affordable health care—knowing that people will have the treatments, medications and preventive care they need to live healthy lives.
Maybe you see justice as environmental equity—guaranteeing clean air for families, regardless of where they live or how much their house is worth.
You might equate justice with the way our nation addresses immigrants, or levies taxes, or funds education.
Justice is inherent in the monumental affairs of state and also in the decisions we each make—and the actions we take—everyday. In one way or another, you have a voice in all of this.
Each of us as individuals can influence the issues that affect all of us as a society.
We can think. We can engage. We can vote.
Regardless of the political badge we wear, we have an obligation to be educated, engaged citizens and participate fully in the democratic process that is the foundation of this country.
For many of our undergraduates, this November presents the first opportunity to vote in a presidential election. Everyone can tell you about their first presidential election, who they voted for, and why. It resides in the same box of memories with getting a driver’s license and buying a beer for the first time—legally.
In addition to selecting our next president, voters in 2008 will show their support for U.S. senators and representatives, local officials, and ballot initiatives.
Each and every vote cast has the power to shape the course of justice in our community, our nation, and beyond. Dr. King knew this and worked diligently to secure the right to vote for African-Americans in the Deep South. In leading the cause that would result in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, he showed America and the world the ugly truth of poll taxes, literacy tests, rogue sheriffs, and immoral public officials.
He knew that a vote cast by one person could affect the lives of many.
“When the full power of the ballot is available to my people,” he wrote in an essay, “it will not be exercised merely to advance our cause alone. We have learned in the course of our freedom struggle that the needs of 20 million Negroes are not truly separable from those of nearly 200 million whites and Negroes in America, all of whom will benefit from a color-blind land of plenty that provides for the nourishment of each man’s body, mind and spirit.”
Our nation has moved from fully enfranchising black voters in 1965 to seeing both an African-American and a woman become leading presidential contenders in 2008. This is remarkable and historic progress. The polling place forever holds the power and promise to advance the causes we care about as citizens.
In 1962, Dr. King stood here, on this stage, and urged U-M students to involve themselves in the world around them. “Education,” he said, “is being true to studies, yet devoting oneself to a significant cause.”
Nearly half a century later, that still holds true—and the need for each of us to be engaged in public affairs, in the world around us, in the quest for justice, is undiminished.
I encourage our students to educate themselves about the candidates and the issues. Immerse yourself in matters that mean the most to you. And then volunteer for a candidate, register people to vote, organize a political meeting, or attend a rally. Raise your political consciousness and act on your beliefs. Raise your voice, because silence is an accomplice to injustice.
Dr. King said: “Life’s most urgent question is: what are you doing for others?” All of us can answer that question—by stepping into the voting booth, thoughtfully engaging in a sacred rite, and shaping our world.