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The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Human Rights Imperative

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

Rensselaer Human Rights Week
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Troy, New York

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Thank you, Liliana Martinez, for that lovely introduction.

Good evening.

Given the effort that has gone into this week, and the commitment of all of you, I must say that it is wonderful to be here with you during this week we have spent honoring the work of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. and considering, in invigorating fashion, what each of us can do to carry his generous vision forward. Monday’s program of community service projects, supported nationally by our new president and his wife, provided us with inspiration. Anthropologist Dr. John Hartigan, Jr.’s speech offered a new way of thinking about the future. And, while there was relatively little actual food served at the OXFAM/Hunger Action Network banquet, it gave us much food for thought.

However, the most remarkable aspect of this remarkable week is semantic: We are no longer calling this “Diversity Week,” but instead “Human Rights Week.” This change reflects the measure of our achievement at Rensselaer, where we actively encourage students from groups traditionally underrepresented at research universities — women and minorities — and where we welcome students from more than 70 different countries. We truly are a global community.

This change, also, reflects our achievement as a nation. Just two days ago, we inaugurated a new president who proved himself — over a long campaign against impressive competitors — to be tough, poised, and gifted. In the process, we proved ourselves to be mature enough, as a country to elect a man whose ancestry includes both Kenya and Kansas, if he happens to be the best candidate. Dr. King’s dream of an America where his children would be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin, now truly is the America toward which we are moving.

Of course, this does not mean we have fully reached the Promised Land. Here at Rensselaer, we still must address what I call the “quiet crisis”: one aspect of which is the gap between America’s urgent need to educate more scientists and engineers — and our limited success in persuading young women and minorities to imagine themselves in these roles.

As a nation, too, we still wrestle constantly with questions of equality and human rights: at Guantanamo; in California, which, in November, passed a measure banning same-sex marriage; and even on Madison Avenue, where both the NAACP and the New York City Human Rights Commission have found little improvement in the hiring and promotion of African Americans in the advertising business in more than four decades.

We struggle, also, with broader questions of fairness that have been brought into sharp relief by the current economic downturn. Many people worry about the differentials, among different ethnic and socio-economic groups, in access to health care and higher education which may make this a less socially and economically mobile society — less of the shining meritocracy we know we ought to be.

Yet, thanks, in good measure to the example set by Dr. King and the civil rights movement as a whole, we do struggle with these questions in our public discourse. This may well be our greatest strength as a people. Ultimately, our government of checks and balances, and the rule of law, works well — albeit sometimes slowly, and sometimes, not completely, but ultimately — to right injustice.

So, when we change the name “Diversity Week” to “Human Rights Week,” it is not because we are setting aside the broadening of opportunity as a concern. Rather it is because diversity, now, has become simply too narrow a goal. We have the moral obligation, to work towards human rights.

Dr. King, too, made a similar journey in his own work. Beginning with the Montgomery bus boycott inspired by Rosa Parks in 1955, he was the most effective leader in the fight against segregation. However, he did not declare victory with the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. Instead, he redoubled his efforts to correct injustices that transcended race — injustices such as entrenched poverty and war — injustices that can be, and often are, exacerbated by race.

Having ascended one hill, he continued to climb the mountain, declaring in his 1964 Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies; education and culture for their minds; and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits.”

I hope everyone here has the audacity to believe the same.

The example of Dr. King has much to teach all of us. At the very end of his life, he travelled to Memphis several times to support striking black sanitation workers there, who were protesting dangerous working conditions and discriminatory pay. At the Masonic Temple on April 3, 1968, speaking to a crowd of two thousand, Dr. King demonstrated two remarkable qualities worth considering this evening — courage and hope.

First, courage: Dr. King faced persistent death threats, yet continued to travel, speak, and march in spite of them. By the time he reached Memphis, however, he was well aware that his time was running out. The Reverend Joseph Lowery, Dr. King’s friend and colleague, remembers him saying, “Joe, I am probably not going to live to be 40.” Indeed, that very morning, Dr. King’s plane had been delayed by a bomb scare. The next evening, at just 39 years of age, he would be shot fatally on the balcony of his hotel.

Yet in that church in Memphis, Dr. King clearly had transcended fear. “Like anybody,” he told the assembled crowd, “I would like to live a long life... But I’m not concerned about that now,” he continued. “I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land.”

What was it specifically that Dr. King had seen? He spoke about watching police dogs and fire hoses be rendered powerless in Birmingham, Alabama, by peaceful people marching together for a just cause. He spoke about being glad that he had lived long enough to see college students all over the South sit in at segregated lunch counters in 1960. He spoke about the courage of others, and implied that it gave him the courage to say, “It doesn’t matter with me now.”

Courage begets courage. As we puzzle together about how to stand for justice and human rights everywhere, we should not forget all of the unlikely heroes of history, and the many times that a single voice speaking the truth has inspired a chorus of thousands — even millions.

I, also, would urge the students here tonight not to feel reticent or at a loss to make the world better simply because you are young. In large measure, it was college students who opened the eyes of the nation to the brutality of segregation.

The Freedom Riders offer just one example of many. Though the Supreme Court had declared segregation in interstate travel illegal, the law of the land was flouted widely in the South. The Congress of Racial Equality decided to address this issue in the spring of 1961 by sponsoring buses of blacks and whites who would tour the South together. The first bus was stopped outside Anniston, Alabama, by 200 armed men, who firebombed it, and beat the escaping riders. The local hospital then refused them care. The second bus was greeted in the Birmingham, Alabama, Trailways Bus station by Klansmen who attacked the riders viciously.

As you may imagine, most of those riders fled Birmingham as soon as possible. However, 21 year-old John Lewis, who would eventually become one of our most distinguished members of Congress, and 23 year-old Diane Nash of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee decided that mob violence could not be allowed to win the day. They assembled a group of students in Nashville, some of whom wrote out their wills before heading to Birmingham to ride the buses.

There was more violence. Yet, on and on through the summer of 1961, the students kept coming to ride the buses, students of all races, from all corners of America. Most of them were arrested in Jackson, Mississippi, and flung into the maximum security prison at Parchman.

The purity of this self-sacrifice touched the conscience of a nation and impelled the federal government to intervene. The end of segregation was now an inevitability. The Freedom Riders proved that it is not age, experience, power, or connections that determine whether any individual can make the world more just. Courage is the true deciding factor.

The second aspect of Dr. King’s leadership that was revealed most remarkably in Memphis is his expansive sense of hope. It is impossible to revisit Dr. King’s last speech without thinking of the biblical story of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, awaiting death with a heavy heart. Yet Dr. King’s tone, on his last night on earth, is profoundly celebratory. He opens by imagining being able to choose which moment in history to live.

“Strangely enough,” Dr. King said, “I would turn to the Almighty, and say, ‘If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the twentieth century, I will be happy.” Dr. King had seen his country changed for the better. He knew that even if he might not make it there himself, future generations would make it to the Promised Land.

Hope is a pre-requisite for any action for human rights; we have to believe in our own power to change the world. Here at Rensselaer, all of us should be able to draw from a particularly deep well of hope, generated by the culture of innovation in which we live.

Though it is too little recognized and too rarely celebrated, the ability of scientists and engineers to spread justice through technology is immense. In Zimbabwe, for example, President Robert Mugabe was unable to quietly steal the election last March because the results at individual polling stations were recorded on cell-phone cameras and in text messages. The results showed the opposition winning overwhelmingly. Though President Mugabe is still in power, the world now questions his legitimacy, thanks to a particularly democratic piece of technology — the cell-phone.

Indeed, unfettered communication is a remarkable force. Some scholars have cited the recent economic success of China and Russia as evidence that the world is not marching inevitably towards greater liberty for all men. Dr. Daniel Deudney of Johns Hopkins University and Dr. G. John Ikenberry of Princeton University recently wrote an essay refuting this idea, arguing that democracy is the only political structure that is compatible with capitalism in the long-term. Among many reasons, they cite the “large and growing social networks across international borders” that make it difficult for autocratic states to keep their citizens from absorbing the values of those networks.” By definition, those values include freedom, equality, justice. What has powered those networks, of course is technology — the revolutionary advances in information technology.

Of course, many of the world’s injustices cannot be laid at the feet of oppressive governments. Climate change, which is likely to weigh most heavily on the parts of the world that can least afford it, is but one example. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that in Africa, as many as 250 million people will be subjected to increased water stress by 2020, and that yields from rain-fed agriculture could drop as much as 50 percent in some countries — on a continent that is already challenged to feed its populace.

Here, too, we have the opportunity to correct that injustice by developing alternative energy sources, new efficiencies in transportation and power generation that will help to curb greenhouse gas emissions; by engineering better batteries and by breeding food crops to defy desertification; by developing fuels from algae and jatropha oil seed — plants that do not compete with food crops; by engineering better LED lighting systems, such as is taking place, now, in our Engineering Research Center for Smart Lighting, and even, conceivably, by discoveries and innovations that lead to technologies to remove CO2 from our atmosphere, and, it is hoped, stabilize the climate.

In every academic arena are opportunities to change the world and to bring liberty, equality, and justice to those denied them. Your education is giving you the power to put new tools into the hands of people whose lives will be transformed by them. All that is required of you is courage, and that great leap of imagination called hope.

There is not a person here tonight who cannot change the world.

As Dr. King said in Memphis, “When people get caught up with that which is right, and they are willing to sacrifice for it, there is no stopping point short of victory.”

Thank you.

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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