Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium
January 19, 2009
Please join me in thanking Dr. Lester Monts for his dedication to making our university a better place for all students, staff and faculty.
It is always a pleasure to welcome the community to the University of Michigan’s annual Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium, which is now in its 23rd year. Throughout the day and month, we have extraordinary events, including one that will begin in a few moments with our keynote speaker, Julian Bond.
This year’s Symposium is particularly special. This year, we are gathered on the eve of a true achievement in American history – the inauguration of our country’s first African-American president.
Forty-five years after Martin Luther King shared his dream of equality with thousands gathered at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial, Barack Obama will stand at the opposite end of the National Mall, take the oath of office, and, in the words of Dr. King, “make real the promises of democracy.”
When I was the age of today’s U-M students, the civil rights movement was unfolding and causing many Americans, myself included, to reassess our society. As an undergraduate in Iowa, I remember taking part in an exchange program with students at a historically black college in Tennessee. Once, when talking with one student about her life in Memphis, she shared her anxiety about entering a movie theater and sitting in the “wrong” section. I was confused. Going to the movies was scary? How could there be a wrong section?
My eyes were being opened.
As a college student, my classmates were entirely white. The notion of having professors who were African-American, or female, or openly gay – well, it was largely unheard of. That the president of the country might one day be black was simply unimaginable. It just wouldn’t happen.
I never dreamed I would see this day, and I am thrilled and excited about what it means for our campus and our country.
Barack Obama was elected because people embrace his ideas and his vision. They also connect with him as a person. His background and heritage are unlike that of any of his predecessors, but for many Americans, his life represents their own experiences. Regardless of their backgrounds and political beliefs, people look at him, hear his personal story, and say, “I can relate.”
Is there a better illustration of the power of learning about people of different backgrounds?
Tomorrow’s inauguration sends a strong message of hope and achievement to the people of our nation and the world – especially young people. Where I, as an 18-year-old, could not imagine an African-American leading our country, today’s students see the reality of President Obama. Where I, as an undergraduate, did not see women faculty, today’s students interact with female professors, deans and administrators.
This is why diversity matters and why, more than ever, we must re-commit ourselves to a campus community that provides experiences and opportunities unlike any other university. A diversity of people, of ideas, and of cultures is a core value of this institution. We want a spectrum of students, staff and faculty, and we will always work to attain it, because it is a critical element of our commitment to academic excellence.
And so we are deepening our study abroad program, so that more Michigan students can learn about different cultures and use those experiences to change communities for the better.
And we are working harder than ever to encourage students of all backgrounds to apply to Michigan and then, when they are admitted, to doubly encourage them to enroll.
And we are fully committed to a strong financial aid program, particularly in these thorny economic times, so that family income never prevents a student from a quality education.
We do all this and more, because I want our campus and the people who make it so engaging to be as inspiring as the political events of the past year. I want U-M to always be not only a place of dreams and aspirations for tomorrow, but also a place where social justice, political activism, and community engagement is practiced today.
I know there are members of our community absent from today’s program because they are on their way to Washington. Students are filling buses, just as they did to hear Dr. King in 1963 and just as they did to support our university’s affirmative action fight at the Supreme Court in 2003.
During that rally at the high court, thousands of students from U-M and around the country voiced their belief that race still matters in our country. There were banners and chants, and someone held a sign above the crowd that read: “Let’s make equality a reality.”
Let’s make equality a reality. Let’s make change for the better. Let’s make real the dream.