Good morning, Deerfield.
I’m excited for our celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the opportunity for discussion it will offer. I’m grateful to all of our students, faculty, and staff who have helped organize today, and I’m grateful for your engagement and attention. I want to extend a special Deerfield welcome—and thank you—to Dr. Arthur Flowers who will be speaking and performing this afternoon.
As I record this on Friday, January 15, it is Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, and I’m honored to have the opportunity to offer a few short reflections on his life.
I was four years old when Dr. King was assassinated at the age of 39, so, like you, his life and legacy—and the history of the movement for civil rights and racial and economic justice of which he was a part—come to me by what has been written about him, his published speeches, books, and sermons, and of course the remarkable recordings of those that are available to us—not only his well-known and justly celebrated “I Have a Dream” address delivered in 1963 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the march on Washington, but also his 1963 “Letter From Birmingham Jail”—in my view one of this country’s greatest founding documents—and his extraordinary 1967 speech “Beyond Vietnam.” Recordings of King reading these can be found online at the King Institute at Stanford University, where many of his papers and manuscripts reside. I hope at some point you will take the time to listen. His is a remarkable voice, resonant of both the Bible and this country’s founding literature and imbued by the rhythms and cadence of the Black church in which he and his father and his grandfather before him were reared.
I do, however, remember the day in 1983, my senior year in high school, when President Reagan signed into federal law the holiday that bears Dr. King’s name—and I remember, as well, the struggle to have that legislation passed, the opposition waged against it, its legislative defeat in the House of Representatives in 1979, and the bipartisan consensus that emerged soon thereafter leading to its passage by a vote of 338-90 in the House and by a vote of 78-22 in the Senate.
As the legislative struggle over this this holiday demonstrates—it was only recognized by all 50 states 20 years later in the year 2000—Dr. King’s contributions to the advancement of civil and human rights were not always as obvious or widely accepted as they are today. Yet his lifelong advocacy for expanded voting and civil rights and his defense of political reform though nonviolence—and the comprehensive philosophy he articulated in support of it—is as important now as it ever has been.
As we look back on the violence that erupted in the Capitol on January 6 and forward to an inauguration overshadowed by the threat of further violence and lawlessness, Dr. King’s soulful, bedrock commitment to peaceful assembly, protest, and nonviolent action has a powerful claim on our attention, and it stands as an eloquent rebuke to those who seek change through violence or endeavor to disrupt and vandalize our constitutional norms and electoral processes.
Dr. King’s was a restless and searching mind committed to justice and imbued by powers of empathy that seemed to extend farther and farther over the course of his short life. In his final years, even as he continued to seek racial and economic justice in this country, he turned his energies—and all of his rhetorical gifts—to the question of global poverty and economic inequality in other countries. On March 31, 1968 Dr. King delivered one of his final sermons—just one week before his assassination—while supporting striking African American sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee.
From the pulpit of Riverside Church on the Upper West Side of New York City, Dr. King spoke of his Poor People’s Campaign and the coming march on Washington in support of it. Again, he gave voice to his philosophy of nonviolence, saying, “We are not coming to engage in any histrionic gesture. We are not coming to tear up Washington.” Dr. King was a builder.
In his 1968 book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, Dr. King spoke about what he called “The World House” and the concept of global citizenship and engagement that led him in those final years of his life to risk his popularity and political capital to oppose the war in Vietnam. It is a concept central to your education here at Deerfield. I will conclude with this paragraph from the final chapter of his last book. Dr. King wrote:
“Some years ago a famous novelist died. Among his papers was found a list of suggested plots for future stories, the most prominently underscored being this one: ‘a widely separated family inherit a house in which they have to live together.’ This is the great new problem of mankind. We have inherited a large house, a great world house in which we have to live together—Black and White, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim 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.”
I hope you will find inspiration and strength in today’s discussions, talks, and performances, and I wish you a great day of listening, conversation, and learning