Date: 
Monday, January 21, 2008

“Peace is not merely the absence of tension, but the presence of justice.” These are the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., and they are the theme for this year’s King Human Rights Week celebration. Dr. King spoke those words in 1956 in a sermon shortly before going to trial, in the midst of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Let me share with you the context for these words, especially because they relate to higher education itself.

This is the story as Dr. King himself tells it in his sermon: “A few weeks ago, a Federal Judge handed down an edict which stated in substance that the University of Alabama could no longer deny admission to persons because of their race. With the handing down of this decision, a brave young lady by the name of Autherine Lucy was accepted as the first Negro student to be admitted in the history of the University of Alabama. This was a great moment and a great decision. But with the announcement of this decision, ‘the vanguards of the old order began to surge.’ The forces of evil began to congeal. As soon as Autherine Lucy walked on the campus, a group of spoiled students led by Leonard Wilson and a vicious group of outsiders began threatening her on every hand. Crosses were burned; eggs and bricks were thrown at her. The mob jumped on top of the car in which she was riding. Finally, the president and trustees of the University of Alabama asked Autherine to leave for her own safety and the safety of the University. The next day after Autherine was dismissed, the paper came out with this headline: ‘Things are quiet in Tuscaloosa today. There is peace on the campus of the University of Alabama.’”

We all want peace. One might argue that peace is the most universal goal of humankind. We are now leaving behind a holiday season that, in Dr. King’s own religious tradition, calls for “Peace on Earth.” We have recently completed a caucus season in Iowa in which we heard candidates tell us their plans for pathways to peace.

But Martin Luther King challenges us to think about what we really mean by “peace.” Dr. King reminds us that, yes, peace can be a bad thing. In fact, the title of his sermon is “When Peace Becomes Obnoxious.” Peace of a certain sort merely obscures conflict rather than resolving it. It masks evil rather than enacting good. The “peaceful” situation that Dr. King decried on the University of Alabama campus in 1956 demonstrates how peace indeed can be obnoxious, even insidious.

Dr. King becomes even more blunt at the end of his sermon. Again, here is what he says: “1) If peace means accepting second-class citizenship, I don’t want it. 2) If peace means keeping my mouth shut in the midst of injustice and evil, I don’t want it. 3) If peace means being complacently adjusted to a deadening status quo, I don’t want peace. 4) If peace means a willingness to be exploited economically, dominated politically, humiliated and segregated, I don’t want peace.”

Our history is filled with great people, well-known and little-known, who refused to keep the peace in the face of injustice. Many of those who followed Dr. King’s advice—and many of those who anticipated it—were right here in Iowa.

In the 1930s and 1940s, when The University of Iowa denied African-Americans the right to live in University dormitories, UI internal medicine research technician Helen Lemme defied the campus “peace” of such discrimination and opened her home to these students.

In the 1940s, when Edna Griffin of Des Moines, as well as her daughter and two friends, were refused service at Des Moines’ downtown Katz Drug Store lunch counter, she didn’t just go away and keep the peace. The “Rosa Parks of Iowa” organized pickets in front of the store and filed charges against the owner under the 1884 Iowa Civil Rights Act. The Iowa Supreme Court upheld the guilty verdict.

In the 1960s, when employers found it easier and cheaper to ignore the welfare of migrant farm workers and their families, Shirley Sandage of Mason City did not opt to keep the peace in rural communities. She created the Migrant Action Program, which provided daycare, education, vocational training, food, and medical services to migrant families.

In the 1970s and 1980s, when it was easier to ignore the needs of minority prisoners and those with substance abuse problems, Mexican-born Fort Madison resident Marta Werner volunteered at the Iowa State Penitentiary and assisted prison branches of such groups as the NAACP and Alcoholics Anonymous as a lay minister.

And, of course, many, many great Iowans today—well-known and little-known—still refuse to ease the tension in favor of invoking the presence of justice.

As we are an institution of higher education, let me put these ideas in an academic context. Indeed, the very intellectual foundations of the academy fit right in with Dr. King’s concept. The masking complacency of this kind of peace—the repression of conflict—is antithetical to learning and discovery just as much as it is to social justice.

Conflict is at the center of what we do. We cannot push intellectual boundaries unless we question—and that means questioning authority just as much as it means questioning the dubious. We cannot discover the new unless we peel away the top layers of accepted wisdom. We cannot teach and learn unless we question each other, unless we challenge what lies before our eyes. In other words, without conflict, there is no knowledge. If we tamped down all conflict in the university, that kind of intellectual peace would be shallow and meaningless, even fraudulent. Paraphrasing Dr. King, if peace means ignorance, I don’t want it.

Even though critical thinking is the centerpiece of our enterprise, we must remember that orthodoxy is not alien to the academy. We must always remain vigilant about our scholarly biases and prejudices. We must always ask ourselves if we are promoting truth or if we are advancing intellectual dogma. We must always be sensitive to whether we are practicing our values or promoting an agenda. We must always interrogate whether our work is pushing the bounds of discovery or sealing the boundaries of doctrine. We must always hope we are invoking positive conflict rather than creating an easy peace through suppression of ideas.

Our intellectual traditions are also at the heart of our commitment to diversity. We are living in an age when, in some quarters, diversity is a dirty word. Many critics of the academy say that diversity is a politically correct doctrine rather than a key to intellectual discovery. We are living in an age when some people say we should now put aside our differences and focus exclusively on our commonalities. Many critics of the academy say that we are fomenting social division rather than cultural unity. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Human Rights celebration is a time for us to reaffirm diversity as a liberating value—for the intellect and for our society at large—and not an unquestioned academic creed.

Primarily, diversity is about good relationships. As a University, one of our primary interests is in relationships between ideas. As I’ve been suggesting, by definition, a university integrates diverse intellectual perspectives. It’s not a big leap to say that, in order to do so, we must develop the social and cultural diversity of our student body, our faculty, and our staff. And we must infuse our curriculum, our research and creative activities, and our service to the public with the values of diversity.

These are responsibilities that we all share. Diversity—in all its manifestations—is not something that we can delegate to an office or an individual. It is something that must be part of the fabric of our everyday work. We all need to ask ourselves every day what we are doing to improve diversity.

Often, when we affirm the value of diversity—whether for intellectual integrity or for social justice—we will encounter conflict. But we must face that conflict with both intellectual and social courage, and not fall back upon an obnoxious or dishonest peace. We must speak our minds. We must disagree with our teachers, our mentors, our leaders, and even our society at large, if necessary. Diversity is at the heart of what we as a university do, and it’s at the heart of the kind of change—in all its manifestations—that we wish to make in the world.

There’s one more important part of Dr. King’s message. Although we should reject the peace of complacency, the methods we employ to fight in the battles for knowledge and justice should be peaceful. In citing the Bible in his sermon, Dr. King quotes Jesus as saying, “I come not to bring peace but a sword.” But he insists Jesus’ words are not meant literally. We all know that Dr. King’s tools were not swords, guns, or fire hoses. The sword he employed was the resistance and conflict of justice, as opposed to the peace of what he calls “deadening passivity”—that’s the kind of peace he says Jesus rejected. Through non-violence, says Dr. King, “we must revolt against this peace.” Likewise, when we struggle in the University, whether for intellectual freedom or for social change, we too employ conflict—but a peaceful, civil, respectful conflict that results in, again using Dr. King’s words, “positive good.”

In 1956, Tuscaloosa was quiet—it was peaceful—and the university president and board of trustees were happy. But Autherine Lucy was denied her right to an education, her opportunity to better her life, her personal integrity, and her chance to make a difference in the world. Easing the tension denied the presence of justice.

Today, and throughout this month, and throughout this year, as we celebrate Dr. King’s legacy and honor his achievements, let’s all commit ourselves to the peaceful conflict that brings knowledge, positive societal change, and justice for all.

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