Today we gather to commemorate the life of a great leader, Martin Luther King, Jr., and to celebrate his vision of diversity, justice, and unity. This day, and the Black History Month that follows, is also a time when we put a spotlight on Black achievement, creativity, and culture.
Know that I stand before you with some awkwardness. I stand here as a white woman, the president of a predominantly white institution and a symbol of "bureaucratic appreciation of diversity,"[i] having been asked by a black man, Dr. Marco Barker, to deliver remarks on a day when white people can step forth and feel good about supporting black people.
I am here to help make sure that our march today is about more than feeling good.
We are beginning our march on the steps of an institution committed to critical inquiry and transformation as well as equity and inclusion. This means we must be willing to learn from, and in, discomfort. Dr. King had a few words for those he called "white moderates" who offered “lukewarm acceptance" and were unwilling to "re-educate themselves out of their racial ignorance.” “Shallow understanding from people of good will," he said, “is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.” Let us commit to humbly educating ourselves about multiple histories, to learning something from everybody, and to serving others according to their needs.
Let’s make sure our march today celebrates more than an individual. Dr. King led a movement, which he described, at one point, as a “coalition of conscience,” a “grand alliance." We all share histories of struggle, and we all need each other. He wrote, "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly." We are celebrating a movement, and the promise of what we must achieve together.
And there is much left to achieve. Dr. King’s legacy is about more than one speech, one law, or one race. The roots of injustice exposed in King’s day continue to sprout in ours. Slavery has long since ended for African-Americans, but discrimination and disproportionate violence against them persists. Women have had nearly a century of voting rights but still lack pay equity. Same-sex marriage has been legalized nationally, while nearly half of the nation’s LGBT adults live without protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. And while we created DACA, a program for young, undocumented people to come forward, stay with their families, work legally and live without fear of deportation, we have let the threat of rescission linger indefinitely.
Is this the best we can do?
Let’s make sure our march today is about unity in pursuit of justice. We must begin with compassion, empathy, and connection so that we may end with equity for all. We must draw strength, creativity, and ingenuity from our differences.
This is what fighting injustice from the privileged space of a college campus, and valuing blackness at a predominantly white institution should look like. Our march must symbolize the journey of allyship, of constant learning, self-reflection, and action.
We must march in solidarity, without cooptation.
We must march in unity, without sameness.
We must march in support, without arrogance.
We must march together, honoring all who made this day possible, acknowledging the tremendous work yet to be done, and believing that what we do in pursuit of equity and justice today matters for tomorrow.
[i] Roderick Ferguson, We Demand: The University and Student Protests.