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Keeping the Legacy Alive: Celebrating the Life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

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

"Embrace the Dream," A Rensselaer Communiversity Event
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York

Monday, January 19, 2004

Thank you, Dr. Eddie Ade Knowles for that introduction.

Good morning.

It is wonderful to be here with you today for this celebration of the national holiday which honors the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Our own communiversity celebration here at Rensselaer embodies the spirit of this holiday — as we gather to honor Dr. King, and to "embrace the dream" in our own lives.

This holiday is a source of light and hope in these frigid days of winter. It calls forth the best within us, and upon the universal values of equality, justice, and peace, for which Dr. King worked so hard in his too-short lifetime.

To many of you here today, those who were born in the 1970s and 1980s, Dr. King is, primarily, a historical figure. You likely read about his life in your history books, perhaps watched videos detailing his career and famous speeches, and have heard older family members talk about him. Your images of the time are in black and white — literally — and may seem distant from your own experience, and from current events.

But, to those of us who were in high school, college, and beyond, during his lifetime, he did nothing less than change the political, social, and cultural landscape of America before our eyes. His impact was global, as well. His practice of nonviolent action, summoned from his study of Mohandas (Mahatma) Ghandi, influenced other movements for freedom and equality around the world. Dr. King is such a towering historical figure that it is easy to forget that he was a young man at the time of his death — only 39 years old. Already, he had won the Nobel Peace Prize, had been named Time magazine's Man of the Year, and was known worldwide as a leader of tremendous moral power.

We must not, however, leave Dr. King to history. We must "embrace the dream" by keeping his legacy alive. And, by making this legacy relevant in our own lives in the 21st century.

First, I would like to talk a little about the essence of the legacy of Dr. King and his place in the modern civil rights movement. The story of this movement, of which Dr. King was the most prominent leader, is, of course, part of American history, but it also resonates — and, has deep meaning — in our world today.

You may know that in May, we will mark the 50th anniversary of a watershed event in that movement: the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education. As you probably know from your study of American history, the court, in this landmark decision, declared unconstitutional the segregation of public schools along racial lines.

A young, brilliant lawyer, Thurgood Marshall, who would go on to become the first African-American Supreme Court Justice, argued forcefully against segregation, and against the practice of "separate but equal," which, for decades, had denied a full and equal education to countless black children.

The opening paragraph of the Court's decision was a clarion call for equality in America. The court's unanimous decision declared:

"Segregation of white and Negro children in the public schools of a state solely on the basis of race, pursuant to state laws permitting or requiring such segregation, denies to Negro children the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment — even though the physical facilities and other "tangible" factors of white and Negro schools may be equal."

In one paragraph, the court struck down a practice that had kept African-American schoolchildren in the role of second-class citizens, in a country that promised freedom, justice, and equality.

Brown had a powerful impact on my own life and education. Public schools in Washington, D.C., were segregated when I entered kindergarten, so I had to attend an all-black elementary school in another part of the city, instead of the school near my home. After Brown, the D.C. public schools integrated and instituted a tracking system, and I was assigned to the advanced track based on testing. School integration essentially put me on track for high achievement in education. You can multiply my experience by many thousands of young children, and you can see the impact of the Brown decision. It opened up education, and, by extension, many professions to the presence of talented and motivated African-Americans.

Since Brown — and, up until today — a series of court decisions and federal laws and legislation have ensured equality in schools, in public accommodations, in the workplace, in housing, in voting. New laws established equal rights and protections for minorities, women, senior citizens, and the disabled, among others.

But, we must remember that, although the laws were changing dramatically in the 1950s and 1960s, people's ideas about race did not alter so quickly. Within this context, the importance of Dr. King's work can be understood better. He, in effect, was the moral, the philosophical, and the spiritual leader of a movement that asked all people to help make America the country of its ideals. In doing so, Dr. King changed the hearts and minds of many Americans, and of people around the world.

He also was instrumental in efforts to change the laws that supported discrimination. As the head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Dr. King led boycotts and other nonviolent actions that supported the NAACP's numerous legal efforts to end discrimination and segregation.

In fact, as you may know, Dr. King first rose to national prominence in 1955 by organizing the more than year-long boycott of the bus company in Montgomery, Alabama. (This was started in response to the famous incident in which Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white passenger.) The boycott, while peaceful, was not easy. There was opposition by local officials, and acts of violence against the organizers, including the bombing of Dr. King's home. However, the boycotters were undaunted, and the action ended with a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1956, which declared segregation on buses unconstitutional.

So, in this case, and in the years following, Dr. King and his followers met opposition with actions that, while challenging the status quo, were law-abiding and peaceful. This was the genius of Dr. King: to work within the system to transform the system. Dr. King also understood that equality must be fought for — battleground by battleground — with a resoluteness and a steadfastness necessary to the task, while remaining true to his core beliefs, the foundation of which, for Dr. King, was nonviolence.

Dr. King said that "Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time; the need for mankind to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence. Mankind must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love."

This is the essence of Dr. King's legacy. With the law, and peaceful, but powerful, political action, as his tools, he was able to lead people in the fight for justice and equality. He used these tools for positive change, and societal transformation. And Dr. King was confident that, in the end, the promise of America would be fulfilled for all people.

He wrote in his famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail": "If the cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail ... Because the goal of America is freedom, abused and scorned tho' we may be, our destiny is tied up with America's destiny."

The passion for community service, which so many of you share, is a powerful part of Dr. King's legacy. It is rooted in his belief in the power of love — love for mankind, love for your neighbors. Dr. King inspired a wide variety of people — black and white, young and old — to work for justice and equality. Many of them traveled to the Deep South in the summer of 1964 — in fact, it was dubbed "Freedom Summer" — to register African-Americans to vote in the face of sometimes very violent opposition. Dr. King influenced a generation — of which I was a part — with a call to social change and service that is as clear today as it was 40 years ago.

And, this is why it falls to you, to all of us, to keep his legacy alive and vital. There are many challenges for us to face, so many opportunities for us to lead — and to serve — in the spirit of Dr. King.

We can start with our own communities. (In fact, this is where Dr. King started — he was a minister at a Montgomery church when the bus boycott began.) I am impressed by the amount of service that members of the Rensselaer community render to our neighbors. This includes everything from fund-raisers for causes such as "Clothe a Child," to working with students in local schools, to building homes with Habitat for Humanity. The dedication to service by those of you who are Rensselaer students, in particular, is even more impressive, given the intense demands of your studies. But, as I am sure you have found, service complements your studies, and it shows you how your education can help to change the world.

The fact is, we who are privileged to be connected to this prestigious university always can do more. And, the challenges are many. We are challenged to bring safety, security, and prosperity to developing countries in which staying alive is a daily struggle for many people. Consider the recent earthquake in Iran that devastated the city of Bam and killed tens of thousands of people. A recent earthquake of similar magnitude in California resulted in only several deaths and minimal damage. It brought into sharp relief the fact that economic and technological development saves lives. And, this development is inextricably linked to the achievement of equality, justice, and security for more people. In a real sense, this is the ultimate point of so much of the work being done in engineering, science, and technology at Rensselaer.

So what more can we do? First of all, study hard and work hard, because the world needs your knowledge, skills, and expertise — they are the keys to creating better lives for more people. Think, for example, of the advances being made in biotechnology and nanotechnology that will bring better health and safer living conditions to more people. Through research and discovery, Rensselaer students and faculty are in a unique position to have a direct impact on creating the kind of world of which Dr. King dreamed.

There are many other ways we all can be better global citizens. We can keep well-informed of current events around the world, as well as learn about other cultures, which is so important in our post-September 11 world. Travel is another way we can do this. And, as we are fortunate to have students at Rensselaer from more than 70 countries, we can learn about the world right here on the Troy campus.

And, those of us who are American citizens can exercise one of our most precious rights: the right to vote. Remember that, in Dr. King's day, people literally put their lives on the line to uphold this right. Because of their work, the barriers to voting were removed, and, today, registering to vote is a simple as filling out and mailing a form.

As we celebrate Dr. King's life today, I urge you to reflect on his legacy and how we each might contribute to keeping it alive and vital in our increasingly complex world. I believe we all are called to do this.

When Dr. King accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway, in 1964, he said he did so with "an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind." He went on to say: "I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality."

I share Dr. King's "abiding faith." This day is our reminder that his faith is well-founded.

Thank you, and enjoy your 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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