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Office of the President Emeritus
Hinman Box 6166
Hanover, NH 03755
Phone: (603) 646-0016
Fax: (603) 646-0015

Remarks by President James Wright (Martin Luther King Day)

January 20, 2003

Thank you, Nancy and Aquilla. Thank you for tonight, and thank you for all that you do.

I am delighted to be here with you this evening to help celebrate Martin Luther King Jr., Civil Rights Day and to reaffirm Dartmouth's commitment to diversity and civil rights. This is the special day when, formally, we take a moment together to reaffirm those principles and values that must inform our lives every day. As Dr. King said, we all need to work to make certain that we let freedom "ring from every village and hamlet, from every state and every city"¦." Even as that task remains unfinished, we also know that, consistent with his vision, it surely has expanded for this bell of freedom and of hope must ring around this girdled earth. This is a big assignment!

Each year the Martin Luther King Steering Committee pulls together an extraordinary program of activities ranging from plays and films to arts programs and panel discussions. I am pleased to thank the Steering Committee members for their work and to thank in particular their chair Ozzie Harris. Ozzie, you do so much to remind this community of the critical importance of diversity and to help us expand its meaning at Dartmouth.

This year's theme is "Against the Tide: Envisioning Peace and Justice in Times of Hatred." It reminded me of a story I had read about last year about someone who worked to bring about peace and justice in another time of hatred "” World War II.

Nicholas Winton was a 30-year old clerk at the London Stock Exchange who visited Prague in 1938. Once there he visited the refugee camps that were springing up. By this time the Germans had already occupied Czechoslovakia and Jewish families were trying to flee from the occupying forces. Winton saw that nothing was being done to help the children and he determined to do something. But before he could evacuate any of them, he needed to find a foster family to take them, £50 security for each, and to arrange their transportation.

In just a few months, he organized 8 trains that rescued 669 children. A ninth train, carrying 250 children, never made it out. It was scheduled to leave Prague on September 3, 1939 "” the date Britain declared war on Germany. In London 250 foster families waited in vain "” no one saw any of those children again. Nicholas Winton could not stop the Holocaust, but 669 children survived as a direct result of what he did. Winton insists he wasn't anything special, He said recently "I just saw what was going on and did what I could to help."

Morris Dees also saw what was happening in his world and he too made a decision to help. He is the chief trial counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that he founded to fight against racial injustice. In 1981, the Center won a $7 million settlement against the Klan for the role they had played in the lynching death of a young black man in Mobile, Alabama. And in 1991, they won a $12.5 million settlement from Tom Metzger, the leader of White Aryan Resistance, after a group of youths under his supervision killed an Ethiopian man. In addition to his legal work, Mr. Dees, through the Southern Poverty Law Center, has developed an extremely effective educational program to teach tolerance through schools.

Nicholas Winton and Morris Dees displayed admirable courage in tackling the injustices that they confronted. They were ordinary people who, when faced with a problem, had the courage to stand up for what is right. The same was true of Martin Luther King. Today we recognize him as a genuine American hero. He was a man who inspired and demonstrated his non-violent courage regularly "” and he was a man who changed this nation in very fundamental ways. But he started his civil rights career as an ordinary man who saw an injustice and set out to do something about it.

I suspect that, from time to time, we all wonder how we would react in a similar situation. Would we display the same courage? We don't ever know the answer to that question until we are tested. But one thing that is apparent is that the people who do make a difference through their actions, long before they took action, held strong convictions about what is right and a commitment to some basic principles. We do not shape our principles on the fly.

Establishing one's own firm convictions is the best place for all of us to start. What do we stand for? Not what do we stand for in terms of our own interests and ambitions, our personal needs and aspirations, as important as these might be. But more fundamentally what do we stand for relative to others, especially others who are less fortunate or more vulnerable. Do not be put off by the magnitude of tasks before you "” small deeds always make a difference. Emily Dickinson reminded us:

If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again
I shall not live in vain.

I talked at Convocation about the need to be willing to take risks in our everyday lives and to go beyond our comfort zones. The ability to work and live with people from backgrounds different from our own is a critical skill "” but it is also one that we need to practice and work on.

As an institution we have an obligation to provide the best possible education for our students and to do that we need to create an environment that is supportive of all members of our community.

It is hard on this occasion not to refer to the University of Michigan cases currently on the docket of the United States Supreme Court. I was disappointed last week when the President chose to submit amicus briefs supporting the petitioners on these cases. The ruling potentially could have a tremendous impact on American higher education.

One of the great success stories in American life over the last 30 or 40 years has been the expansion of opportunities for higher education to all qualified students. Surely Dartmouth has participated in this and has been significantly enriched by expanding our pool of prospective students.

Dartmouth was chartered as a diverse institution. Since Dartmouth began its selective admissions process in the early 1920s, it has explicitly assumed that educational benefits flow from a diverse student body. Students learn from one another and the more diverse the student body and, indeed, the faculty and staff, the richer our learning environment is. This has been and continues to be a fundamental principle of my presidency. Our academic work, our learning, our conversations over the dining room tables in Thayer and in residence halls across the campus are more complex and full, are more challenging and stimulating, because of the diversity of our campus population. This experience, in turn, helps to prepare Dartmouth students for the rich and complicated and challenging world into which they will graduate.

If the Supreme Court rules against the University of Michigan and even goes so far as to overturn the Bakke decision, we will need to look for ways, within the law, to ensure that the diversity of the campus and the educational benefits that flow from that diversity are not lost. Our commitment to this preceded any federal or state programs or mandates; this commitment will be sustained in the absence of these if, unfortunately, this becomes necessary.

The privilege that we share as members of this special community means that we incur certain obligations. These need not be met only by dramatic moments or large gestures. As the old spiritual said, "This little light of mine/ I'm going to let it shine." As individuals we get the chance to work for peace and justice every day in small but meaningful ways. I am always humbled but encouraged by the amazing things that our students do. That you do. Students who help with the habitat for humanity house, or volunteer every week in the Big Brother/Big Sister program, or who serve as Sexual Assault Peer Advisors for their fellow students. Students who reach out, extend a hand, share a smile. Remember Nicholas Winton "” "I just saw what was going on and did what I could to help."

Our message for today, for the year, for a lifetime:
Let it shine; let it shine; let it shine.
Thank you for your lights that make this a stronger place, a better place.

Last Updated: 8/21/08