King Celebration Convocation message, delivered by Dr. Rebecca Stoltzfus, President of Goshen College, on Monday, Jan. 18, 2021, in the Goshen College Church-Chapel (as prepared for delivery).
It is a privilege to speak today to honor the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and to draw connections from his life and writings to us and where we are today, and where we go from here.
I want us to remember Dr. King not only as a civil rights hero but also as a human being. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a college student too at one time, at the historically Black Morehouse College in Atlanta. He played football for Morehouse and competed in debate. He liked fashion, loved to dance and was great at the Jitterbug.
When he was 31 and had already risen to national prominence, he walked for a few hours on this very campus. Sixty-one years ago, in 1960, Dr. King visited Goshen College and spoke in our Union Building — the same building where we eat at the Leaf Raker, enjoy our new Haitian art collection and where our Welcome Center is named for our first African American graduate, Juanita Lark.
Dr. King’s close friend and civil rights colleague Vincent Harding — a Mennonite minister whose wife Rosemarie Freeney was a Goshen College graduate and who visited and spoke here several times — described Dr. King this way: “Martin was spirit-based, pro-democracy activist, thoughtful social analyst, loving, encouraging pastor who calls us to our best possibilities, and a justice-obsessed, biblically-shaped, prophetic spokesperson for the poor.” Maybe you are called to one or more of those things too.
We honor Dr. King’s work as a civil rights leader, beginning in 1955 with the Montgomery bus boycott. He helped to form and then lead the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which organized nonviolent direct actions around racial injustice, including the 1963 March on Washington. He mentored John Lewis, the late US Representative from Georgia, whom Dr. King tapped to lead the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee as well as the march that was halted by police violence on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in 1965, a landmark event in the history of the civil rights movement that became known as “Bloody Sunday.” All contributed to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965. These were historic achievements that changed America and drew the attention of the world. In 1964, he won the Nobel Peace Prize.
In the later 1960s, before he was assassinated in 1968, he turned his attention to broader issues of poverty and economic inequality, as well as militarism. As the war in Vietnam raged on, he used his powerful voice to declare that we were fighting an immoral war. He founded the Poor People’s Campaign, a national call for moral revival. This campaign is alive and at work today, and if you are looking for a way to join your passion for social and racial justice with the passion and discipline of others, consider joining the Indiana chapter of the Poor People’s Campaign.
The title of Dr. King’s final book, published after his death was: “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?”
I want now to connect that powerful question to our own time and place, here at Goshen College, in the early 2020s. Let’s begin by taking stock of “where we are,” then and now.
In the years that followed desegregation and the passing of the voting rights act, Dr. King writes about Black disappointment. The movement toward racial justice in this nation has had a rhythm of advance followed by backlash and regression. Black disappointment is felt painfully again now, and it is felt here at GC.
Dr. King wrote in 1967: “Black people have half the income of whites. There are twice as many unemployed. The rate of infant mortality (widely accepted as an accurate index of human health) is double that of whites. Segregated [Black] schools receive substantially less money than do the white schools. One twentieth as many Blacks as whites attend college.”
Where are we now? In earnings,
- In 2019, Black-headed households have 60% the income of white-headed households.
- In the 4th quarter of 2020, Black adults were 1.7 times more likely to be unemployed than white non-Hispanic adults.
- The gap in school funding still exists. In 2019, Even controlling for income, school districts with concentrations of nonwhite students received $1,500 less per student than those with concentrations of white students – a finding that “hammers home the deep roots of racial inequity in education funding.”
- We have made a lot of progress since 1967 in college attainment, although a striking gap remains. In 2019, White adults are one-and-a-half times more likely to have attained a bachelor’s degree than Black adults.
And in health:
- The latest U.S. national data show Black babies are more than twice as likely to die in the first year of life than white babies.
- Even worse, Black women are more than three times more likely to die pregnancy-related deaths than White women.
- And since the pandemic began, Black people are 1.6 times more likely to have died from COVID.
It is shocking how little progress has been made in closing gaps in these very indicators that Dr. King called out in 1967. The root causes of these persistent inequalities are complex, but they are assuredly not inherent to the minds or bodies of Black people. These are the outcomes of systemic racism.
Because of these immoral and persistent inequalities, Goshen College joins in saying: Black lives matter. Not more than other lives. But in the face of such injustice, Black lives must draw our concerted attention.
I want to turn from these statistics, these external manifestations, to probe more internal aspects of “where we are now:” our pain, fear and our anger.
As we gather in January 2021, we continue to process the many layers of suffering and violence that we have witnessed in the past year: the coronavirus pandemic, the deaths of Black people at the hands of police, mean-spirited politics, and an armed siege of the United States Capitol. Racism has shaped each of these traumas and the ways that they land on us unequally.
We are immersed these days in rhetoric that is designed to frighten us, and it is working. Fear is a powerful motivator. Frightening headlines and sound bites strike us when we are vulnerable to the virus, our trust is low and our interdependence on one another is scary. Throw on racially inflammatory messages and symbols, and our collective fear is palpable.
What do we do when we are afraid? Well it turns out that we buy toilet paper and guns. In March 2020 as the pandemic became real and restrictions were imposed, toilet paper sales jumped 70% and gun sales by more than 90%. In June, after the murder of George Floyd, gun sales surged again, and spiked the week of June 19th.
Why June 19? It is Juneteenth, the anniversary of the day when slaves were declared free under the terms of the 1862 Emancipation Proclamation, and when the president chose to hold a large rally in Tulsa, the site of a historic race massacre. Gun sales in 2020 tracked our collective racial animus, measured by the number of daily google searches of racist epithets. Racial animus has surged this year, and so have gun sales: In total, 3 million more guns were legally purchased in 2020 than expected.
In terms of race, White Americans are more likely to own a gun than Black Americans. Black Americans are twice as likely to die from gun violence in general, and are killed by police at twice the rate of White people.
Further taking stock of “where we are now,” I also want to talk about our anger.
Our present fear is accompanied by a lot of anger. That is not bad; anger can be a force for good. Anger is useful because, like pain, it signals that something needs attention — either within us or around us. Something needs to change. Anger is an essential energetic force in our movements toward justice — that is, if we learn the disciplines needed to harness it for good. This was part of the effectiveness of Dr. King’s leadership. As he described it: “Nonviolent resistance . . . released anger under discipline for maximum effect. . . Nonviolent direct action has proved to be the most effective generator of change that the movement for racial justice has seen.”
Dr. King’s legacy lives on today. Some in the public sphere have wanted to paint the picture of the racial justice uprising in following the murder of George Floyd as violent. This is very largely false. Ibram X Kendi, professor, anti-racist activist and historian, documented that in the summer of 2020 there were more than 8,000 demonstrations for racial justice, and 93% of them were peaceful, including those in the city of Goshen and lining the streets of our campus. Mariame Kaba, one of many leaders within those protests, has noted that in 2020 people knew what to do — not only how to act, but how to support and care for one another on the streets and if arrested.
The legacy of nonviolent action is one we must tend and sustain. Speaking about nonviolence on MLK Day is so familiar to us that we might somehow think that this was bland or natural for him. It was not. He owned guns as a young adult before he later got rid of them. He carefully studied the methods of Mahatma Gandhi in India and learned from Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, in Vietnam. He got beat up and jailed and watched others suffer the same. And in the midst of intense Black disappointment and frustration, he came under strong pressure from other Black leaders that the movement take up arms.
Let me be clear: my affirmation of nonviolence is not to control Black anger or protect White people from Black violence. Undisciplined White anger, White supremacy and White violence is a far greater threat.
My point is in answer to King’s question, “Where do we go from here?” from this place of fear and anger, to work toward community, we must also learn nonviolent ways of being together and of resolving our differences.
We must connect our work toward equity and justice to our Christian faith and to inter-faith dialogue. Dr. King is a tremendous example of this. Goshen College, arising from an historic Mennonite peace tradition, holds an unusual degree of commitment, knowledge and experience around the ways of nonviolence, for which Jesus is our ultimate guide. We need this vital legacy to meet the moment we are in.
Finally, speaking to you as a White person today, I know that to choose community means also that we are who are White must take responsibility to learn, change and act on behalf of racial equality and justice.
Dr. King wrote while sitting in a Birmingham jail: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Black person’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; . . . Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
We who are White need to learn to see our own privilege and racism more clearly, to motivate each other to continually develop healthy and effective anti-racism practices, and to support one another and keep us moving forward when we fail. For the first time in my experience, White people are coming together in new ways to attend to issues of race grounded in out of a positive sense of our racial selves — a commitment to our own healing and our collective healing. We can develop a culture that challenges the dominating whiteness that has been the crippling wound in our nation and our campus for too long.
Vincent Harding tells the story of Mississippi civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, who was asked by a reporter in 1964: “Are you seeking equality with the white man?” “No,” she firmly replied. “I don’t want to go down that low. I want the true democracy that will raise me and the white man up. . . . raise America up.”
I feel unbearable longing for our collective liberation from racial injustice. It is corroding us — our health, our economic security, our safety, our democracy.
In a moment we will turn to a video with a multiplicity of voices speaking to our work here at GC.
This year, we are writing a new strategic plan for Goshen College. Diversity, equity and inclusion will be a cross-cutting theme of the plan, building upon the recommendations of the DEI Task Force, with specific measurable objectives and allocated resources.
If you are passionate about this, please enter the conversation. Email me at email@example.com.
We have work to do together, and that work gives me hope. Fueled by a spirit of prophetic love, let us, like Dr. King, fully and creatively engage with the living history of our time. Let us be those creative disrupters of racism who call our beloved nation and our beloved Goshen College to an ever more true and noble expression of equity and justice in action.