2015 Martin Luther King Jr. Day Celebration Remarks

Jan. 19, 2015

Opening remarks as prepared for delivery on Jan. 19, 2015, in Richardson Auditorium

Last week, I joined with members of the University staff to volunteer at the Mercer Street Friends Food Bank in Ewing, as part of the service program organized to honor King Day. Michele Minter, our vice provost for institutional equity and diversity, will offer some remarks on these wonderful service initiatives later in our program. But I want to take a moment now to thank all of the Princetonians who organized and participated in these endeavors to support our local communities. These efforts exemplify Princeton’s commitment to being “in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations.” It was also, if I may say so, a lot of fun to spend time with my marvelous co-workers from Princeton and the terrific people at Mercer Street Friends, and I hope that I will be able to participate again next year. I encourage everyone in our campus community to marshal their interests and talents to find their own ways to contribute to the well‑being of our society — not just on holidays and special occasions, but every day. Through our research and teaching and our civic engagement, all Princetonians have a responsibility to try to make a difference by confronting difficult issues that affect citizens of America and the world.

We are here, of course, to honor a man who represented the deepest imaginable commitment to serving society — a man who made the ultimate sacrifice in the name of freedom, justice, and peace. And I think Dr. King would be proud of what we have witnessed here in recent months. Many on our campus have engaged in impassioned protests and vigorous dialogue about issues of diversity and inclusion here at Princeton and in our society at large — spurred by the demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri, in New York City, and elsewhere around this country. The peaceful and powerful activism of our students and others in our campus community is a direct reflection of the legacy of Dr. King and his incomparable service to society. 

Dr. King worked ceaselessly to impel this country to fulfill the audacious dream of all Americans being a single people, possessed of equal rights and entitled to the equal protection of the laws. And he encouraged and inspired Americans young and old, Southern and Northern, to join in his unyielding efforts to uphold the ideals set forth in our Constitution. In the early 1960s, as black college students began to rise up in greater numbers in peaceful dissent, Dr. King wrote in The New York Times:

“ … [T]hese students are not struggling for themselves alone. They are seeking to save the soul of America. They are taking our whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the Founding Fathers in the formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. In sitting down at the lunch counters, they are in reality standing up for the best in the American dream.”

Dr. King’s heroic fight was inherited from those who recognized that, from the earliest days of the republic, America was unfaithful to its foundational commitment to equality. A century before Dr. King rose to prominence, as the country descended down the path toward civil war, the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass excoriated advocates for slavery, and even some of his fellow abolitionists, who claimed that blacks in America were not afforded equal rights under the Constitution. Speaking to an audience in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1860, Douglass insisted that blacks in America had a Constitutional right to “demand their liberty”:

“The Constitution does not say they are not included, and how dare any person, speaking for the Constitution, say so? The Constitution says: ‘We the people’ … not we the white people, not we the citizens, not we the privileged class, not we the high, not we the low, not we of English extraction, not we of French or of Scotch extraction, but ‘we the people.’”

Today, the protests and dialogue we have seen on campus and across the country provide evidence that we as a nation have more work to do to fully live up to America’s stated ideals. Whether we are addressing issues of University policy or those of national import, we at Princeton all must do our parts, however big or small, to serve our fellow citizens and to push for change where we see inequity. We must live up to the examples set forth by Dr. King, Frederick Douglass, and so many other brave freedom fighters who stood up to those who would deny any Americans the rights and dignities that they were granted, and that they deserve, under our Constitution. Thank you.