Remarks by President James Wright at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration
January 19, 2009
Thank you, Anna. I appreciate your introduction and want, in turn, to recognize you for your leadership. I am grateful to you for your generous gift and gracious comments. For 40 years I have been enriched and encouraged by the contributions to Dartmouth by students of color. This College is the richer because we have you as classmates and students, colleagues and friends. That is the most wonderful gift I can ever imagine. I am grateful to you and to the Afro-American Society. Your efforts help strengthen the spirit of community among your members, and your community in turn is an essential part of the community that is Dartmouth.
Susan and I are delighted to be here with you tonight for Dartmouth’s annual celebration of the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Over the last decade, we have happily made the MLK Monday night gathering a priority, eager to join in welcoming and learning from our keynote speakers. There is a lot of history that remembering Dr. King evokes – but even for a historian this day is about looking ahead and not just reflecting on where we have been. I have often noted that this marks the day that we gather to celebrate those values that need to inform our work each of the days of the year. The events and activities scheduled as part of this celebration invite our active engagement. They provide us with opportunities to think and talk together about some of the issues and values that are most central to our mission – and remain so each day of the year. Our assignment is not something relegated only to a January day.
We owe our thanks to those whose vision and efforts have made this year’s celebration possible – Vice President of Institutional Diversity and Equity Holly Sateia, Special Assistant Nelson Armstrong, and the planning committee they have ably led. Would you join me in recognizing them?
I am grateful for their work – and for the ongoing efforts of colleagues in both the Office of Institutional Diversity and Equity and the Office of Pluralism and Leadership. They do so much to help us to further develop as a community and to grow in our effectiveness. They are central to our mission and we all need share in their work.
My thanks, as well, to Sherman Alexie, who has graciously joined us tonight. Sherman Alexie is a young man of remarkable accomplishment – a poet; a writer of short stories, young adult novels, and screen plays; a film maker; a story teller; a stand-up comedian; a truth teller. We need such truth tellers, and we are grateful to him for engaging us in the necessary step of confronting truth, unpleasant as this sometimes can be. It is wonderful to have him here for this occasion at a school that the Mohegan Samson Occom helped to found.
This theme for this year’s celebration is “Getting to the Mountaintop – Working Through Conflict Toward Reconciliation.” This reflects less on accomplishment and points us toward the work ahead. Nothing is promised in these words. We focus on a process – on getting to and on working through—on the work of reconciliation, not the result of resolution.
This theme seems particularly appropriate tonight. Forty-five years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke in Washington at a rally on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, demanding that this country extend the rights laid out in the Declaration of Independence to all Americans. The vision of that document had to be realized before the promise of our founding would be kept. Tomorrow will be a historic moment in the delivery of the dream. Barack Obama will be inaugurated as the first African American president of this nation. This is a time of hope. And if we need wait to find the fullness of our hopes realized, we should not for a moment overlook the symbolism of the occasion Those of my generation understand full well what this means. Fifty years ago I was eighteen and spent the winter in Mississippi. That world I encountered has been slipping away over the last half century and tomorrow’s inaugural emphatically marks conclusion to a part of our history that was always inconsistent with our best values.
But finally even this occasion will not be the end of our work. All Americans—all citizens of this world—have reason to take pride in Barack Obama’s inauguration. Pride is wonderful; it is contagious; it is necessary – but it is not sufficient. It will not immediately make homes available to those who do not have them, feed children who are hungry, ensure that families have both heat and medicine; it will not educate children nor will it fill young lives with hope. We must not turn from this work; we cannot assume that now the President will attend to these matters; these are tasks which we all must share.
In 1963, the year that Dr. King spoke at the rally at the Lincoln Memorial, the year of the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, Dartmouth President John Dickey reflected on the failures of the American Dream of freedom for all.
Mr. Dickey challenged students with a Burkean argument: Bad things happen not because of the actions of those who do evil, but rather because of the silence and indifference of those who could do good. In my inaugural remarks in 1998 I reminded us all that our goals for life needed to be greater than to be passively good. I have been fortunate to be part of a community where this obligation is widely shared and recognized. You inspire me by the active steps you take to make lives better and to make hope greater.
If the past forty years have proven anything to me, they have shown me that we can be one community, one Dartmouth, united by common values and a common mission. I think we all share Barack Obama’s vision of this country – and our own community – as a place that, as he described it, reaches “beyond the divides of race and region, gender and religion that keep us from seeing the best in each other.” At Dartmouth, we affirm the best in each other and we seek to help students understand the world as it is and encourage them actively to seek to make the world as they hope it would be. We are committed to the education of students who will assume lives of responsibility and of leadership.
Sherman Alexie writes about harsh realities in the lives of his Native characters, and he does not flinch from facing the horrible human consequences of current and historical injustices in our society. But he leaves the door ajar with some humor – and some hope. In his poem “The Museum of Tolerance,” hope and humor encourage but do not guarantee:
The Museum of Tolerance, thank God, is open all night
but nobody can agree on the price of admission.
Tomorrow and forever we need affirm the redemptive possibility of human connections bound by common hopes and dreams, the essential connections Gwendolyn Brooks promised in her poem, “Paul Robeson.”
we all heard it,
cool and clear,
cutting across the hot grit of the day…
Warning, in music-words
devout and large,
that we are each other’s
that we are each other’s
we are each other’s
magnitude and bond.
Over the next several months as Susan and I prepare to step back and to say farewell to you, our sustaining strength and the memories we will always carry will come from the magnitude you have extended to us and the bond we have shared with you.
We will never step back from these. You have paid the price of admission to the museum of tolerance as you have summoned all to join you. So, picking up on my annual convocation invitation, I will remind you that we have work still to do, you and I. And let us commit always to continue with the never finished task of our shared responsibility for our world, for each other, and for the good work of a good place.
Last Updated: 6/25/09