Remarks at Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium
January 21, 2013
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, Morris Dees. Thank you for sharing your message with us.
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.
This is a momentous day. In a few hours, President Obama will take the oath of office for the second time. That he, as our first African-American president, does so on Martin Luther King Day carries a powerful, uplifting message for our nation.
As the president said in 2009, after placing his hand on the Bible, “There is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.”
There is no success without struggle. I want to tell you of two men and the difficult struggles they faced, with courage and resolve.
Robert Hayden was a black man, a child of Detroit who bounced between a mother and father and foster parents. He grew up poor and depressed in a neighborhood known, somewhat cruelly, as Paradise Valley.
His childhood and its rough surroundings would fuel, rather than extinguish, Robert Hayden’s love of writing. In particular, he was a poet with an extraordinary gift for realism. He wrote of slavery and violence, of poverty and humiliation. “I see the hatred for our kind,” he wrote, “glistening like tears in the policemen’s eyes.”
He used his poems to open a window into black America’s struggle, and show how it was part of the larger human struggle for freedom.
His words would lead him to become the first African-American to be America’s poet laureate.
Raoul Wallenberg was a white man, a child of privilege raised in one of Sweden’s wealthiest families. He was accustomed to travel and culture, and comfortably spoke the language of the countries he visited.
As a Swedish diplomat stationed in Hungary during World War II, he was an angry eyewitness to the brutality of the Holocaust.
He found countless ways to shelter terrified men, women and children trying to survive in what was, by then, the last surviving ghetto of Jews in Europe. He repeatedly put his life at risk to rescue thousands from the Nazi death camps.
He saved some 100,000. And then he disappeared at the hands of strangers to a fate this is still unknown.
I do not know if Robert Hayden and Raoul Wallenberg ever crossed paths. Or if there was occasion to compare their stories of struggle and sacrifice.
What I do know is they are each alumni of this great university and we should forever be grateful for, and inspired by, their courage, their leadership and their commitment to human dignity.
Whether with words or actions, they found it within themselves to combat tyranny, racism and hatred, and all of our lives are better for it.
This academic year marks the centennials of Raoul Wallenberg and Robert Hayden, who also was a Michigan faculty member. As Michigan students, Hayden won Hopwood Awards and Wallenberg was named the top architecture student. Prizes and honors today carry their respective names on campus.
But like anyone fighting for a better world, both men knew hostility and hatred. Standing for justice often means facing the cruelty of injustice.
In the racially charged 1960s, black writers and readers ostracized Robert Hayden when he said he wanted to be known as an American poet rather than a black poet. He was accused of turning his back on the very people he was writing about.
Raoul Wallenberg lived with the threat of assassination from none other than Adolf Eichmann, who labeled him a “Jew dog” and ordered German snipers to train their scopes on him.
Our speaker today, Morris Dees, has repeatedly been the target of death threats because of his crusade against the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups.
And Martin Luther King, who once stood on this stage at this very lectern, knew the pain of beatings, jailings and, ultimately, an assassin’s bullet.
Robert Hayden once described freedom as “this beautiful and terrible thing, needful to man as air.”
That is why so many fight so hard, for equality and justice.
An open, tolerant society does not occur without individuals and institutions that lead and push forward. Our university is known as a national leader for diversity in higher education, and we embrace that role.
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 deliver 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.
And we work for justice in our standing commitment to a campus that welcomes and encourages all voices and all people.
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, we all have a voice in this.
Each of us as individuals can influence the issues that affect all of us as a society.
We can think.
We can engage.
And we can celebrate.
Celebrate the life of Dr. King, his contributions and sacrifices, and his powerful legacy of hope and tolerance.
Celebrate a U-M architecture student who stared down evil and became one of the great humanitarians of the 20th century.
And celebrate a Michigan poet whose words of the black experience are milestones in our broader human journey, one toward what Reverend King called the oasis of freedom and justice.