Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration Keynote

Thank you all for joining us this evening.

I'd like to begin by recognizing the members of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration Planning Committee for putting together such a thoughtful program. Year after year, they put a great deal of time and energy into producing a series of events designed to inspire action, action toward the vision of equality and inclusion and opportunity Dr. King held for our nation and the world.

I hope you'll make it a point to take in one or more of the outstanding films, panels, performances, lectures and multi-faith celebrations scheduled to take place on campus as part of this initiative over the next few weeks, none of which would be possible without the dedication and hard work of the Planning Committee. So please join me in giving them a big round of applause.

I also want to thank our student speaker this evening, Selome Ejigu from the Class of 2017, who we'll hear from later in the program.

And, of course, I'd like to extend a warm welcome to our distinguished guest this evening, Reverend Sekou, and his musical collaborator, Jay Marie-Hill, who I know will inspire us all with their performance later tonight. We are privileged, indeed, to have you here on campus on this special occasion.

Each year, we rightly celebrate the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We do so recognizing that events within our own nation, across the globe and on our own campus show us that we are far from being a post-racial society. We still have a long, long way to go to achieve the ideals that Dr. King fought for.

So as we gather here this evening, it is my sincere hope that every one of us choose not only to celebrate, remember and honor the legacy of Dr. King, but to live it. To recognize the inequities that continue to persist in society, to continue the righteous and unremitting work that Dr. King began, and to stand up for justice and equality for all. Not just today, but every day.

I want to hearken back 55 years, to Dr. King's first, and unfortunately, only address on our campus. He stood before students in 105 Dartmouth Hall to speak about the future of race relations in our country.

In his address that day, Dr. King said that there were three basic attitudes that one could take toward the question of integration, and more generally, progress in race relations.

The first is one of extreme optimism. The extreme optimist, he said, would point to the strides that had been made and conclude that the problem is just about solved.

The second, he said, was a position of extreme pessimism. The extreme pessimist would contend that we've made only minor strides, that recent events suggest we're going backwards, not forwards, that we're creating more problems than we're solving and therefore, that real progress is not possible.

Dr. King noted that the extreme optimist and the extreme pessimist agree on one point: they both feel that we should do nothing. The extreme optimist says, "Do nothing because progress is inevitable. The extreme pessimist says, "Do nothing because progress is impossible."

That day, Dr. King encouraged the Dartmouth community to embrace a middle ground, what he called the "realistic position," recognizing that there is truth in each of these two opposite positions. The path forward is more complicated – there are a mix of steps that represent real forward progress together with actions that lead to some very real setbacks.

As Evelynn mentioned, I recently had the opportunity to read the book, White Rage, by Carol Anderson. In it, Dr. Anderson paints a similar picture - that progress on race relations in this nation has been far from linear. She offers a compelling, well-documented argument showing that ever since Reconstruction, steps that have advanced African Americans toward full participation in democracy have been slowed – or even reversed – by systematic actions in the courts and legislatures.

Which brings us to this year's theme: the fierce urgency of now. We are on the cusp of a change in Administration in this country. Changes in Administration are, inherently, moments of uncertainty, but many believe that this moment is one of particular risk. As citizens of this nation and of the world, we must feel urgency that this moment – now – be one of forward progress and not one of setback.

And while our vigilance must apply to a much larger stage, we can begin on our own campus by working towards a strong foundation of honesty, openness and mutual respect from which all progress originates. Although our work is far from finished, I'm grateful for our shared commitment to continue advancing the causes for which Dr. King began his historic fight – and to doing so with the same sense of urgency he brought to his life's work.

Thank you all for joining us in honoring his legacy tonight, and I hope you enjoy the rest of the program.