King and Hannah: Different paths, same destination


As we prepare to observe Martin Luther King, Jr. Day January 18, we are reminded that the struggles of the past are manifest today.

Since 1998, Michigan State has chosen not to hold classes this day to provide opportunities for our Spartan community to reflect on Dr. King’s messages and vision and to participate in campus events.

Last fall MSU’s Office for Inclusion re-launched Project 60/50 for a second year of activities meant to nourish community conversation and action focused on advancing equality and equity and promoting a civil society. The 60/50 initiative holds up that to which we aspire as an inclusive, resilient community while acknowledging our shortcomings and suggesting ways to correct them through authentic dialogue.

MSU’s involvement in the fight for civil rights and justice goes back generations to the era of then-President John Hannah, who with little fanfare took many steps to make the campus a more welcoming place for all students.

Just three years after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court decision that desegregated public schools, President Dwight D. Eisenhower named Hannah the first chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. The panel went on to hold high-profile public hearings around the country to bring civil rights violations in housing, voting, and education to light. Those activities paved the way for important laws seeking to guarantee equal rights under the law.

Hannah was a person of conviction and of action more than bold pronouncements. In the contentious and occasionally dangerous circumstances under which his commission operated—including hostile communities and meddling officials—his dispassionate, tenacious approach ultimately proved effective.

But he reflected eloquently and personally following the death of Dr. King in 1968. Upon a late-night return from Washington, D.C., where he’d been preparing for commission hearings in Montgomery, Alabama, Hannah’s wife broke the news. “I was more heartsick than ever before in my life,” he wrote the next day, recalling their first meeting, in Montgomery, ten years before.

Hannah confessed that to him the phrase “civil rights” sounded cold, impersonal, and legalistic. It was human rights for which King fought, he concluded. “Human rights brings the matter to the level of each of us, and we begin to think of others as human beings like ourselves with the same ambitions, and hopes, and fears, and aspirations that we all entertain—human beings entitled to the same respect and dignity that others enjoy.”

In Hannah’s day, the struggle was against widespread, officially sanctioned discrimination. “The problem,” Hannah told the Detroit Economic Club in 1959, “is how to make legal fact living reality.”

Much ground has since been gained, but those fights are still not entirely won for all. Further, equal rights under the law alone can’t rid the world—or even this campus—of the more subtle assaults from offensive behavior and demeaning speech.

“As we go forward in pursuit of the dream of Martin Luther King, let us remember that while a university is powerful, it is not omnipotent,” Hannah cautioned the day of King’s funeral. “And as we seek to double and redouble our efforts, let us not dissipate our strength by abandoning the ground in which our strength is rooted. Partisan only to truth, passionate only in pursuit of error, the university must be faithful to its own great traditions and to its own ways of getting things done if it is to be truly effective.”

We still have miles to go to build a fully inclusive community that accepts and welcomes differences. And so we continue to evaluate our responses to concerns voiced over human rights, own up to our shortcomings, and, to the best of our institutional ability, be better tomorrow than we are today. We will continue to do the hard work that moves us toward an inclusive culture of the sort that Hannah—and Dr. King—would want to see on campus and in the larger world.


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