Monday, January 17, 2011

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration of Human Rights is a wonderful way to start the year and start a new semester at The University of Iowa. I thank all of those who have worked so hard to organize this program and all of the events to come. And I thank you for joining us today as we celebrate the spirit and legacy of one of our greatest Americans, Martin Luther King, Jr.

The University’s annual King celebration is always focused on a theme taken from a quotation by Dr. King. This year, that quotation is, “Our goal is to create a beloved community. This will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.” Dr. King wrote these words in 1966 in an article that appeared in Ebony magazine. The article’s title is “Nonviolence: The Only Road to Freedom.” It was written at a time when Dr. King and his movement’s principle of nonviolence were being challenged by other civil rights groups and their advocacy of a more violent approach to social change.

In the wake of the great tragedy in Arizona last week, I can think of no more opportune time to remember Dr. King’s message of nonviolence. Whatever the grievance that the young man in Arizona may have had against Representative Giffords or our government, we can all agree that violence—especially deadly violence—is never the solution in a civil society. As a result of the shooting in Arizona, our country is now in the midst of another debate on whether American culture is too violent, even in our political rhetoric.

What we do on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is recognize Dr. King as one of our greatest Americans. We recognize the greatness of not only this individual, but also the greatness of his cause—his means as well as his ends. The “beloved community” that Dr. King calls for in our thematic quotation—with its accompanying call for qualitative and quantitative changes in our souls and lives—is specifically linked to nonviolence. In the article’s sentence right before our quotation, Dr. King says, “Only a refusal to hate or kill can put an end to the chain of violence in the world and lead us toward a community where men can live together without fear.” Shortly after our quotation, he says, “To destroy anything, person or property, can’t bring us closer to the goal we seek. The nonviolent strategy has been to dramatize the evils of our society in such a way that pressure is brought to bear against those evils by the forces of good will in the community and change is produced.”

As the national debate over violence ensues, we in the world of higher education can emphasize the importance and rightness of our own focus on multiculturalism—the way that we do it, as well as the fact that we do it. I believe that one of the greatest strengths of diversity in the university is its focus on exploring, learning about, embracing, debating, and discussing our common humanity and our myriad cultural differences, whether those differences are in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, age, ability, or any other aspect of our existence that creates the vast panorama of humanity. At the university, we pursue the study and understanding of diversity through civility, respect, and appreciation for all people and for diverse points of view. Diversity is a model for civility. Violence has absolutely no place in the academic world. We seek to change the world for the better through our teaching and learning, research, scholarship, creative endeavor, and service. And no matter how we do it, we share with Dr. King the principle of change through nonviolence.

Today, a democratically elected representative to our nation’s Congress—and a business owner, a Fulbright Scholar, and the wife of a Navy pilot and astronaut—lies in a hospital with a gunshot wound to the head that nearly ended her life. A bright, ambitious nine-year-old child, a federal judge, and four other innocents were killed. Over a dozen others were injured by bullets as well. If Dr. King were alive today, he would be front and center condemning this horrific act of violence as a way to solve differences. It is tragic that our culture has yet to learn his lessons of creating a beloved community through nonviolence.

Fortunately, we remember—and continue to remember through celebrations like this—the legacy and ideas of Dr. King and his powerful, essential message. Indeed, as the title of his article states, nonviolence is the only road to freedom.

Let me reiterate that message once more through Dr. King’s own words, the few sentences that conclude his 1966 article. “There is no easy way to create a world where men and women can live together, where each has his own job and house, where all children receive as much education as their minds can absorb. But if such a world is created in our lifetime, it will be done in the United States by Negroes and white people of good will. It will be accomplished by persons who have the courage to put an end to suffering by willingly suffering themselves rather than inflict suffering upon others. It will be done by rejecting the racism, materialism and violence that has characterized Western civilization and especially by working toward a world of brotherhood, cooperation and peace.”