Loomis Chaffee celebrates the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with a week-long series of events starting on MLK Day. This year, we kicked things off with student and faculty performances at an all-school assembly. I invite you to view video from the day on our Facebook page. Below are the remarks I delivered at that assembly:
Today is about celebrating the accomplishments and the vision of a great figure in American history. Assassinated in 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the leading lights of the civil rights movement and is one of the most important Americans of the 20th century. The new movie Selma focuses on the 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in support of voting rights. Dr. King, who had just accepted the Nobel Peace Prize a few months earlier, was a critical player in the organization of those marches, as well as in other key aspects of the civil rights movement.
I sometimes hear people ask, aren’t we past having to talk about the societal reforms for which Dr. King was fighting? Haven’t we accomplished the goals that he wished to achieve?
For me, this week of events is not just about the extraordinary accomplishments of Dr. King; it is about far more than that. It is also about the dream, the vision, the hope that he had, and that we have, that we will become a society where people, to use Dr. King’s words, “are judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.”
This week and this celebration are about human rights; they are about social justice; and, quite frankly, they are about living up to this country’s founding vision.
Dr. King was concerned primarily with race, but today the fight for social justice encompasses gender, sexual orientation, social class, and religion in addition to race. And events this year, unfortunately, have underlined just how relevant and ongoing this struggle is and needs to be:
- The needless deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, among too many others, have pointed to the systemic issues with racism within our society.
- Leelah Alcorn’s suicide reflects the ongoing difficulties faced by transgendered and LGBT people, especially teenagers.
- The terrorist attacks in Paris against the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a kosher grocery store reflect the significant tensions around religion—fundamentalist Islam, anti-Semitism, and Islamaphobia.
- The sexual assaults in the NFL and on college campuses and in the entertainment industry reflect an ongoing problem.
As I was thinking about what I would say to you today, I not surprisingly made a connection with this year’s school theme on memory. To some extent the issues we face as a nation have to do with the memory we have of our history.
I was recently reading Anne Farrow’s The Logbooks: Connecticut's Slave Ships and Human Memory. A good book. Mr. Freihofer (Al Freihofer ’69, English teacher and director of the Norton Family Center for the Common Good) had leant it to me. It’s the story of a Connecticut slave ship. Two quotations resonated with me in particular: Henry Louis Gates wrote about race and slavery, reflecting that as a nation, “We’ve forgotten our history, then forgotten that we forgot it.” And a little later in the book, Farrow quotes writer Robert Penn Warren, who wrote in 1961, “When one is happy in forgetfulness, facts get forgotten.”
Does it matter if facts are forgotten? Does it matter if we have forgotten our history? There are surely some who would argue that we should just forgive and forget, move on, enough already. While this advice may work for smaller interpersonal conflicts, I don’t think it works for the sort of complicated events that we are talking about today.
Obviously, matters of race, gender, social class, sexual orientation, and religion are challenging, complicated, pressing, and difficult. They are full of nuance. There are always multiple sides to any story. We face situations where good people do bad things and where bad people do good things—where the truth is seldom clear.
Certainly our Norton Family Center dialogue in the fall term focused not only on the killings of unarmed black men but also on the difficulties that police officers face. The killings of the two New York City policemen underlined those very real dangers, though they do not justify police mistreatment or worse of citizens.
Subsequent broader conversations about the Charlie Hebdo attacks have pitted free speech against the propriety of making fun of sacred symbols. Is it acceptable, even given our commitment to free speech, to be purposely offensive towards others and the things that they hold sacred? If it is acceptable to make fun of the prophet Mohammed, is it also acceptable to use the N word or homophobic or anti-Semitic slurs? The New York Times, while abhorring the violence and murders in Paris, also has refused to print the cartoons drawn by the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo because they feel that those cartoons overstep the boundaries of acceptable behavior. (See NYT article “New Charlie Hebdo Cover Creates New Questions for U.S. News Media” and an opinion piece by David Brooks “I Am Not Charlie Hebdo.”) Is this blaming the victim? Or is it trying to draw a nuanced line between civil and uncivil behavior?
Another question that is worth thinking about is why are we talking so much more about the attacks in Paris than we are about the campaign being waged by the Islamic fundamentalist group Boko Haram in Nigeria, that killed as many as 2,000 men, women, and children just last week and over the weekend kidnapped still another 80 people in Cameroon while most of the 200 school girls they kidnapped last year remain captive?
On a less deadly note, the movie Selma has raised several questions, including why wasn’t the movie nominated for more Oscars and does the director mischaracterize and minimize the role played by President Lyndon Johnson?
So many questions and no easy answers. Articulating the dream of the kind of culture we want here on campus, as well as beyond, is easier than actually accomplishing it. Nonetheless, there are things we can do, and I want to ask you to do two things in particular:
The first is an obvious one—it is the golden rule—the same thing your parents have been telling you since you were little—treat people with respect—all people—your friends, your fellow students, your faculty, the staff in the dormitories, in the dining hall, and elsewhere on campus, visiting speakers, your parents, your siblings, the random strangers you meet.
Don’t be needlessly offensive. Don’t use racial, homophobic, anti-Semitic, or otherwise offensive slurs. If someone is offended by something you say or do, regardless of your intent, apologize and avoid repeating the mistake.
This sort of advice is sometimes dismissed as being PC—politically correct. The argument is that if no offense was intended, then no offense was committed or that people should just get a thicker skin. Civil discourse and sensitivity are important aspects of a successful community. You lose nothing by being civil and we all gain by living in a more civil society.
The second thing I would ask you to do is to make certain that you are informed about current events. I said this at the beginning of the year—read a respected news source every day. Please take at least 10 minutes and preferably at least 30 minutes every day to read the key headlines. There are several news aggregators that you can get via email or social media platforms.
And when there is a bigger story—Ferguson, Eric Garner, Charlie Hebdo, Boko Haram—dig a little more so that you understand some of the nuances of what is going on. Read opinion pieces by respected commentators, public intellectuals, and academics. Discuss the issues with your peers. Ask your faculty questions. Find out what is happening. Educate yourself. Your education is not simply about what happens in the classroom.
When Dr. King accepted his Nobel Prize he said, “I accept this award in the spirit of a curator of some precious heirloom which he holds in trust for its true owners—all those to whom beauty is truth and truth beauty—and in whose eyes the beauty of genuine brotherhood and peace is more precious than diamonds or silver or gold.”