Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration, 2020

January 24, 2020

Good Afternoon.

We are so pleased to welcome you to this annual celebration inspired by the life, ideals and example set by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And it gives me great pleasure to welcome today’s speaker, Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry, to Kent State. I have long followed your career, Dr. Harris-Perry, as my son is a graduate of Tulane, and he is now a resident of the great city of New Orleans—your former home. And this past fall we were so honored to welcome the Honorable Mitch Landrieu, the former mayor of New Orleans, to this very stage, and to hear his words that both acknowledged the presence of, and damage caused by, structural racism, but also to feel the warmth of his powerful sense of optimism.

All of you know that on May 4 we will observe the passage of 50 years since the shooting of 13 Kent State students by members of the Ohio National Guard, a tragedy that left our campus bathed in the blood of four slain students, and nine more who were injured by those 67 shots.

And so on this day, at this celebration inspired by Dr. King, we remember that ours is a lesson in the dangers of polarization. That ours is a lesson in what happens when peaceful dialog breaks down. And that ours is a lesson in the sanctity of freedom of speech.

Lately I have been thinking a lot about the word “reconciliation,” which the Cambridge Dictionary defines as “the process of making two people or groups of people become friendly again after they have argued seriously or fought and kept apart from each other.”

And then earlier this week I happened to read a piece by Joel Mathis concerning Dr. King’s thoughts on reconciliation, which noted that Dr. King urged us to “hate injustice, but not those who perpetrate it, so that we might ultimately live together in friendship.”

Mathis’s piece included a link to Dr. King’s 1957 “Birth of a New Nation” sermon, which I read, and then I watched on Youtube. Dr. King delivered these words early in his career, in Montgomery, Alabama, having just returned from Ghana where he attended the ceremony celebrating that nation’s independence from Great Britain.

In his “Birth of a New Nation” sermon King doesn’t sugar coat things. He reminds the audience that even though their cause was just, they were going to experience, nonetheless, the worst humanity has to offer: violence, hateful speech, atrocious behavior, and intense scrutiny and pressure. But Ghana had achieved independence through nonviolent action, he noted, and so could the cause of racial equality in the United States.

Then, in a remarkable aside during the sermon, Dr. King said this:

"The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of a beloved community.

The aftermath of nonviolence is redemption.

The aftermath of nonviolence is reconciliation.

The aftermath of violence, however, is bitterness.”

On this day, as we remember and honor Dr. King, let all of us embrace reconciliation as we approach this year’s May 4th observance. Let our goal be redemption. Let our goal be reconciliation. Let our goal be the creation of a beloved community. And in doing so perhaps we can then shed the understandable, the unavoidable, yet terrible weight of bitterness in the wake of violence.

I know this is a tall order, but we are up to it, and Dr. King’s wisdom will continue to inspire us.

For a decade now, right here on this campus, Dr. Alfreda Brown has inspired us in her role as Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. And today it gives me special joy to present her the Diversity Trailblazer Award in recognition of her efforts and successes. Dr. Brown: will you please join me to accept your award?

What Dr. Brown doesn’t know is that today I am announcing that our Diversity Trailblazer Award will henceforth be known as the Dr. Alfreda Brown Diversity Trailblazer Award. Dr. Brown: both your earning this award, and having it named after you, are fitting recognition of the value you have added to this institution. You have built a beloved community at Kent State, and for that we thank you, and we congratulate you.

And now, please join me in welcoming Dr. Dana Lawless-Andric, who will present our next diversity awards.