Remarks at Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium
Jan. 16, 2012
Please join me in thanking Dr. Monts and his staff, as well as the Office of Academic Multicultural Initiatives and the Martin Luther King Committee, for planning this Symposium.
It is a special day for the University of Michigan community, and I want to welcome everyone who has joined us. Also with us are community members from Detroit who have gathered at the University’s Detroit Center – hello from Ann Arbor.
I especially want to offer a warm welcome to our keynote speaker this morning, Michele Norris of National Public Radio. We look forward to her message.
I want to share with you a kaleidoscope of community activism.
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 open for nearly 85 years.
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 and, like Lyman Johnson, 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 American South.
At a rest stop in Alabama, a group of white men attacked the bus carrying Walter Bergman. 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 sit still. Years later, he forced the FBI to admit it knew of the attacks in advance, and took no action to prevent the assault or 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 activism, struggle and sacrifice.
What I do know is they were both alumni of our great university – Walter Bergman with master’s and doctoral degrees in education and Lyman Johnson with a master’s in history. We should forever be grateful for, and inspired by, their courage, their leadership and their commitment to speaking out for equality.
Let’s move from the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and ’60s to a more recent time. Commemorating the work of Dr. King has become ingrained in our culture, both nationally and globally. His dedication to equality, non-violence and social justice was unwavering, and we use the occasion of his birth to rededicate ourselves to his dream.
This year, Dr. King would have celebrated his 83rd birthday. And this year, for the first time ever, we as a society celebrate Dr. King’s life knowing there is now a glorious memorial to him on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
Establishing, funding, designing and erecting this tribute was no easy task. It took years of discussion, debate and dedication for it to become the stunning reality it is. And we have three members of the Michigan community to thank for making an indelible contribution to this national tribute.
Alumnus Edward Jackson, Jr., is the executive architect for the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Foundation.
Alumnus James Chaffers, professor emeritus of architecture, was a senior design juror for the project.
And Jon Lockard, a faculty member in Afroamerican and African Studies, served as artistic consultant.
All three are with us this morning. Gentlemen, would you please stand so we may thank you for your commitment and your hard work?
And now we turn to the future and the next generation of activists.
Activism takes many forms. With this year’s Symposium, we are examining how the newest tools of communication – Facebook, Twitter and other social media – can make a difference. These are tools that have made an impact in advancing democracy and social justice, particularly in the Middle East.
There is tremendous power in words as well as actions. Others express their passions and beliefs through song, dance and art. And still more use technology in its ever-evolving forms.
But always must remember: it is not the medium, but rather the message and the messengers that matter.
Those messengers are in this auditorium, on this campus, and throughout our region.
We have some special guests with us this morning – high school students who have traveled here from Chicago, Cleveland, Benton Harbor and Detroit. These students, as well as the students of Michigan, are the latest couriers of social justice.
On our campus alone, thousands of students dedicate themselves to hundreds of organizations, with the collective purpose of making our world more equitable, better educated, healthier, safer and sustainable. They – you – are working to improve children’s health in India and Ghana. Develop community gardens in Detroit. Promote diversity in graduate programs. And more - much more.
Whether tweeting, marching, petitioning or teaching, today’s students continue a legacy of activism that is a hallmark of Michigan. As a university, we carried our firm belief in the importance and value of diversity to the steps of the Supreme Court, and I was never more proud to be part of this community. Today, we continue to hold open our doors to students, faculty and staff of all backgrounds.
As a University community, we are marking the 26th year of celebrating the life and legacy of Dr. King. Listen to his words: “Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”
Dedicated individuals. Riding buses through the segregated South, challenging Jim Crow statutes of communities and institutions, pushing for national recognition of cultural icons, and advocating for change – change for the better – throughout the globe.
Dr. King said: “Life’s most urgent question is: what are you doing for others?”
All of us can and should provide answers, with activism and engagement that lift our world to a higher level of humanity.