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Embrace the Dream

Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Rensselaer Diversity Week
Rensselaer Union – McNeil Room
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York

Monday, January 17, 2005

It is wonderful to be here with you for this celebration of the national holiday which honors the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This is the first day of “Diversity Week” at Rensselaer, which features exciting, engaging, and thought-provoking events, as well as opportunities for service.

I am glad that providing information about disaster relief services for the many victims of the south Asia earthquake and tsunami is part of this event. I encourage you to give what you can to one of the many relief organizations that are helping the affected nations to rebuild, and to recover, from this immense human tragedy. As you may know, Rensselaer has contributed to three organizations: AmeriCares, Oxfam America, and Save the Children. If you visit the Rensselaer Web site, you will find more information on the Rensselaer contributions, as well as a list of selected relief organizations to which you may want to contribute. With students from more than 70 countries, Rensselaer truly is a global community. And, service to others is one of the best expressions of our unique diversity.

It is fitting that we keep the victims of this disaster uppermost in our minds during our celebration of the life, and the legacy, of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Although we remember Dr. King primarily as a national leader, he was, in fact, a leader on the world stage. His work in the United States inspired people around the world who were thirsting for freedom, and for justice. He embodied the idea — and the ideal — of global leadership. And, with his philosophy and practice of bringing about radical change by peaceful means, he possessed a moral force that is unprecedented in American history.

Dr.  King said that “All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” Never was this truer than in recent weeks, as advances in communication technology have enabled people around the world to witness the devastation of the tsunami. Indeed, we are living in the global village, a geographic and virtual sphere in which we have a unique opportunity to help our brothers and sisters, in countries thousands of miles away, to recover from this disaster. But, Dr. King also would challenge us to become involved before another cataclysmic event occurs. Yes, he would urge us to learn more about the hopes, the dreams, the needs of people in developing countries, and to use our talents to make a positive difference in their lives. I know the importance of service to many students, faculty, staff, and friends of Rensselaer. So, I am confident that, as the second semester gets under way, more projects and events to aid relief efforts will ramp up here on the campus as well. As we do this, let us remember that there are cases where early intervention — by governments and by individuals — can make a difference. I bring to mind the genocide which killed 500,000 people in Rwanda before the world fully reacted, and the situation in Darfur, Sudan, today.

Dr. King helped to bring about historic change in this country. And, in doing so, he inspired others to lives of public service. This evening, I want to remember another great American, former Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, who died on January 1st at the age of 80. She was the first African-American woman to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. She represented her district in Brooklyn from 1968 to 1983, and also was the first African-American woman to seek the Democratic nomination for president of the United States, in 1972. Congresswoman Chisholm did not want to be remembered for her “firsts,” but, instead, for being “a catalyst for change who happened to be an African-American woman.”

When she ran for Congress, her motto was “unbought and unbossed,” and she maintained this fierce independence throughout her career. Her political courage became apparent as soon as she arrived in Washington, D.C., to serve her first term, when, against the advice of colleagues in the House, she requested a transfer from her assignment on the Agriculture Committee to a committee which had more relevance to her district. No other House member had ever made such a request. It was just not done. She said at the time: “Apparently all they know here in Washington about Brooklyn is that a tree grows there. Only nine black people have been elected to Congress,” she said then, “and those nine should be used as effectively as possible.” Eventually, her efforts paid off, and she was given a seat on the Veterans Affairs Committee and, later, on the Education and Labor Committees.

She also angered some supporters by visiting, in the hospital, Alabama Governor George Wallace, who was known for his segregationist policies, after an attempt on his life in 1972. She believed that as a presidential candidate, it was her duty to visit him, and, on a more personal level, to show support for another suffering human being. She remembers that during the visit Governor Wallace “cried and cried” when she told him: “I know what they’re going to say. But, I wouldn’t want what happened to you to happen to anyone.” This showed strength of character that reminds us of the words of Dr. King: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

Shirley Chisholm also was one of the forces behind the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. Petitions to institute the holiday were first submitted to Congress as far back as 1970. She kept the dream of the holiday alive by joining with Congressman John Conyers to resubmit the legislation to the House of Representatives during every session, until it passed in 1983.

Perhaps the younger people here have not heard of Shirley Chisholm. Similarly, perhaps you are too young to remember the killing of three young civil rights workers in 1964 during Freedom Summer, when young people helped with an intensive voter-registration drive across the South. The three had gone to inspect the ruins of a black church near Philadelphia, Mississippi, which had been firebombed by the Ku Klux Klan the day before. Just last week, an indictment was handed down in the case, some 40 years after the event.

But, as we celebrate Dr. King’s legacy, it is important that we remember both the extraordinary lives lived by those who went before, and the sometimes chilling events which comprised the civil rights era. It is as important to remember that we live in a nation where justice may be served and, also, where extraordinary individuals may rise and serve others. Both elements are symbolic of a larger struggle which continues today, and of which we must all remain aware.

This is why it is important that we have this holiday: to remember that both are possible. This is how we go forward to realize Dr. King’s dream. That is, perhaps, the most fitting tribute we can make to such a great man.

Thank you, and enjoy this celebration.

Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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