Presidential Archives

Martin Luther King Day Keynote Address

January 17, 2005

Beverly J. Martin School, Ithaca, New York

Martin Luther King Day is our newest national holiday. The holiday was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan 15 years after Dr. King was assassinated, and it was celebrated for the first time on January 20, 1986. Ever since, the third Monday of January has been an occasion for people to remember the man and the set of issues to which he devoted his life.

For eleven years now, thanks to Ellen Baer’s leadership, it has also been an occasion for our local campuses to come together with the wider community to remember Martin Luther King, Jr., and the meaning that his message holds for us today.

I want to thank all those who made today’s celebration possible. The Greater Ithaca Activities Center, where many of this afternoon’s activities will be held; several organizations and groups at Cornell and Ithaca College; Greenstar Cooperative Market; the City of Ithaca; and On Site Volunteer Services.

And I want to say how appropriate it is to be gathering at a school named for Beverly J. Martin, a native Ithacan and Cornell graduate, who inspired generations of local school children as a teacher and principal in this building, and as the first African-American administrator in the Ithaca City School District.

Martin Luther King, Jr., devoted his brief life to issues of justice, opportunity, and faith. He showed our nation how systematic injustice was keeping America from living out its promise to the world. He showed our nation how a lack of opportunity meant that millions of children’s potential would never be realized. He showed how religious faith can contribute to a socially engaged life. In each area, he charted a course of progress that our nation might follow during his lifetime, and after his death.

These issues remain vitally important to us as individuals, as a community, and as citizens of this country. And so it is important to take time each year to remember the man, to reflect on the progress we have made, and also on the progress we have yet to make.

Born in the segregated south in 1929, Martin Luther King grew up in an environment of pervasive injustice. It was a time when being black meant being forced to sit in the back of the bus, being prevented from using a public restroom or sitting at a lunch counter, being forced to attend inferior, segregated schools.

King knew all those indignities and many more. But he had extraordinary personal reserves to draw upon: intellect, a capacity for hard work, and hope. And he resolved to do what he could to fight injustice once he was able.

King earned his undergraduate degree at the age of 19 from Morehouse College in Atlanta. He then moved north to Pennsylvania, to attend divinity school at the Crozer Theological Seminary. And he then moved further north to obtain his Ph.D. from Boston University.

But then Dr. King made an interesting choice. He turned down the opportunities for work that were presented to him in the North. Instead, he returned to the South, knowing that he and his family would again face the intense discrimination of Jim Crow. For he knew that by returning to the South they could be more directly engaged in the struggle for economic and racial justice.

Between October 1954, when Dr. King was installed as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, and his assassination in Memphis, Tennessee, in April 1968, he mobilized millions of people, black and white, to dismantle segregation in the South and proclaim their commitment to civil rights.

Like many of you, I was not yet born in December 1955, when Dr. King threw his support behind the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott, to show solidarity with the courage of Rosa Parks.

For 381 days, with Dr. King as their leader, the black community of Montgomery refused to ride the city buses. They walked. They rode bicycles. They pressed the legal system to vindicate their rights. They were non-violent, but they were resolute.

The movement took hold. The struggle broadened. And ultimately the edifice of Jim Crow was dismantled, brick by brick.

But many had to give their lives in the struggle for greater justice.

In 1964, civil rights activists Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney were murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Michael Schwerner was a member of the Cornell Class of 1961, and Andrew Goodman’s parents had met and married at Cornell. The efforts of those three young men — two white and one black — on behalf of civil rights are memorialized in a stained glass window in Cornell’s Sage Chapel.

A week and a half ago, a 79-year-old Mississippi preacher and reputed leader of the Ku Klux Klan was indicted on charges of orchestrating the three murders 41 years ago. Those forty-one years from crime to indictment are a powerful reminder that ours is not yet a nation where justice is reliable and swift. We have much work yet to do.

Dr. King cared about justice. And he also cared about opportunity. He cared about being a society where all people might have a fair chance to realize their aspirations.

As Dr. King wrote in Ebony magazine in October 1966, “There is no easy way to create a world where men and women can live together, where each has his own job and house and where all children receive as much education as their minds can absorb. But if such a world is created in our lifetime, it will be done in the United States by [black people] and white people of good will. …It will be done by rejecting the racism, materialism and violence that has characterized Western civilization and especially by working toward a world of brotherhood, cooperation and peace.”

Clearly there has been great progress in this area. Since Dr. King’s death in 1968, we have seen unprecedented numbers of African Americans rise to prominence in political life, in business, in the professions, in higher education, in popular culture.

But despite that progress, we still have much work to do in the domain of fair opportunity. I learned a great deal about this during the six years before I came back to Cornell. From 1997 through 2003, while serving as the dean of the University of Michigan Law School, I spent six years as a named defendant in litigation concerning the use of affirmative action in university admissions.

During those six years, as I had occasion to defend our admissions policy before many different audiences, I came to appreciate that, as contentious as the issue may have been, there were areas of convergence — areas where almost all our critics and our supporters could find common ground. And in those areas of convergence one could chart the path of change since Dr. King’s day.

The first area of convergence was on the desirability of integration. A key element of our defense of our admissions policy was the need to prepare today’s students for life in an integrated society. And our critics did not disagree with that goal. They argued only that, important though integration may be, it is not sufficiently important to justify affirmative action.

But think about how remarkable that is. Even our critics agreed that America is, and of right ought to be, an integrated nation. Indeed, in its opinion upholding our policy, the Supreme Court went so far as to say that meaningful integration of our universities is critical to their democratic legitimacy.

The second point of convergence was on the desirability of colorblindness. Both the critics and the supporters of affirmative action agreed that, in an ideal society, affirmative action would be unnecessary. We would enjoy the benefits of integration without even trying. In an ideal society, large institutions like corporations and universities would pay no attention to an individual’s race in deciding how to interact with her or him, but they would still reflect the magnificent diversity of our country.

Again, note how remarkable that is. In Dr. King’s time, segregationists were willing to kill in order to prevent integration. They simply could not imagine a world in which large institutions would be expected to be colorblind.

These points of convergence show how far we have come as a society since 1968, but they also show how far we have yet to go. For the reason that we continue to need affirmative action and the reason that many people find the practice problematic are one and the same: we are not yet the kind of society where racial integration happens “by accident,” where colorblindness leads naturally to integration.

It is not yet true in this country that newborns of all races can be expected to receive equal investments in their preschool, elementary, and secondary education. It therefore should not surprise us that the applicant pool at the highest levels of academic competition is not as diverse as the census shows our nation to be.

The Supreme Court recognized the continuing appropriateness of affirmative action because of that fundamental inequality of opportunity. But at the same time, the Court reminded us that the availability of affirmative action does not absolve us of the responsibility to address the underlying inequality. In the majority opinion, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor stated, “We expect that 25 years from now the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today.”

As we celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., we need to recommit ourselves to addressing the fundamental concern. We need to work together to bring about the day when the accident of birth will not influence whether a child has a meaningful opportunity to realize the full measure of her or his potential. We need to confront the disparities of resources in schools and families. We need to make sure that these disparities are not so significant that they, all on their own, predetermine children’s life opportunities. We must complete the journey towards becoming a society where affirmative action is unnecessary and where genuine opportunity within an open and integrated community is the true birthright of every child.

And in working to create that kind of society we might also consider the way in which Dr. King approached the matter of religious faith.

As a Baptist minister who had also given serious study to the life and work of Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. King grounded his social and political activism on a strong spiritual and moral foundation.

When he spoke at Cornell’s Sage Chapel, on November 13, 1960, he took his sermon, as he had many times before and after, from the Book of Revelations. In that sermon he talked about “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life” — length, breadth, and height.

The length, he said, “is the inward drive to achieve one’s personal ends…The breadth of life is the outward concern for the welfare of others. The height of life is the upward reach for God. Life at its best is a coherent triangle. …Without the due development of each part of the triangle, no life can be complete.”

The religion clauses of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution were fashioned to enable our country to be one that is hospitable to religious faith, without establishing a state religion. Many people share King’s belief that life cannot be complete without an upward reach for God. It is essential that they be free to pursue their vision of a complete life, without imposing that vision on others who have a different view.

Here again, we still have some work to do as a society. A recent Cornell survey revealed that nearly half of those polled nationally believed the U.S. should, in some way, curtail the civil liberties of Muslim Americans — by requiring Muslim Americans to register, by having law enforcement personnel monitor mosques, or by having undercover law enforcement agents infiltrate Muslim civic and volunteer organizations. There can be no doubt that the specter of terrorism has damaged our country, interrupting our progress towards a vision of universal religious tolerance.

The final years of Dr. King’s life were marked not only by the civil rights movement but also by the war in Vietnam, and the juxtaposition of those two social issues caused him to reflect not only on the future for African Americans and white Americans, but on the future of the world.

In 1967, the year before he was killed, Dr. King wrote a book entitled, Where Do We Go from Here? And in the final chapter, he talked about the world beyond the issues of black and white.

“We have inherited a large house,” he wrote, “a great ‘world house’ in which we have to live together — black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Moslem and Hindu — a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest, who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace.”

And then he shared the following insight. “Our hope for creative living in this world house that we have inherited lies in our ability to re-establish the moral ends of our lives in personal character and social justice. Without this spiritual and moral reawakening we shall destroy ourselves in the misuse of our own instruments. …This may well be mankind’s last chance to choose between chaos and community.”

On this day of reflection and remembrance, as we celebrate what would have been Dr. King’s 76th birthday, I am glad that we have chosen community. Thank you for inviting me to be part of this special day.