Honoring Dr. King, 2006

01-25-2006

Last week was the 26th observation of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday at Michigan State University.

Dr. Lee June and I have been active participants in all of them, since the beginning.

And it’s an observance we began even before it became an official national holiday back in 1986.

Over the years, the events have changed as students and other groups think about how best to commemorate Dr. King’s life and work in ways they deem appropriate, but the ideas of inclusion and making a difference are always central to them.

The Committee and AJ Rice, the student co-chair for 2006, did tremendous work this year, engaging not only MSU students, but area high school students and members of the community. I’m especially proud of how student leadership was reflected in the events, particularly the Student Leadership Conference, “Into the Streets,” and the march from Beaumont to the Rock. And as always, the community dinner was a smashing success.

I also want to recognize the School of Music for the great concert that drew, I understand, more than a thousand people. Really, it was more than a concert—it was a blend of teaching through words and teaching through music, and it closed with a memorable Marvin Gaye suite.

The theme of this year’s Greater Lansing Area Luncheon in Memory of Dr. King was “Greatness through Service.” Governor Jennifer Granholm spoke, and touched on one of my favorite ideas, society’s need for the dreamers who will build our future. We also heard from Mayor Virg Bernero of Lansing and Mayor Sam Singh of East Lansing, who noted the important role that Michigan State plays in our community.

Along with honoring Dr. King, this year we also remembered the woman many call “the mother of the civil rights movement,” the late Rosa Parks. And we marked the 40th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus, hers wasn’t an isolated act of defiance. There were many other acts of defiance throughout the early days of the civil rights movement, but no one knew at the time which act or which individual would be the catalyst that finally would ignite the change.

There’s no question that Rosa Parks is a heroine. But she wasn’t alone. She had a support structure—a small group of women, and later even Dr. King—who helped transform her action into a something bigger than any individual, a symbol and a platform for a variety of voices from a variety of places that ultimately made the kind of difference that changed a nation.

And when we talk about the 40th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, we’re talking about a lot more than just history. This is a time in America, as we think about things like ballot initiatives, when the people of Michigan—our students, our community—have an important role to play by exercising the privilege, not simply the right, to vote. Because that is the most fundamental way that one is an active participant in our democracy.

Dr. King knew that. He wasn’t just about protest marches or speeches. He was instrumental in advocating for the Voting Rights Act and he urged people to use the power of the ballot box constructively, and for the collective good.

And that’s an interesting confluence when we think about the power of the ballot, the character of leadership, the ability to make a difference, and maybe more than anything, the essential nature of inclusion, which is one of our core land-grant values.

Inclusion isn’t simply being present somewhere—it’s having the opportunity to participate fully, to have a sense of belonging and a stake in our tomorrows. The role our values play in terms of having respect for differing points of view and assuring the ability to disagree in a reasoned and reasonable way really reflects the respect that we hold for everyone in our community.

As a university and as a microcosm of society, our challenge is to continue to play the strong role that we must—not simply to move a particular initiative or action forward—but to empower people.

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