A legacy of hope
Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little’s remarks to the 2013 South Middle School Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration
Remarks as prepared for delivery
Good afternoon, Cougars! It is a pleasure to get to visit with you today to talk about the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., and how we can all follow the example he set in our own lives.
I want to start by recognizing Betty Norwood, who I’m told has been the person who has organized this event for many years, and who is retiring this spring. Congratulations, Mrs. Norwood, on building a tremendous legacy for your students, school and community.
Jill Jevens told me that Mrs. Norwood had a chance to see Dr. King speak when she was growing up. I got to see him speak too, when I was in college, and it is something I will always remember.
Dr. King changed lives, especially those of us for whom segregation was a daily fact of life. It may seem hard to believe now, but when I was your age there were stores and schools I couldn’t go to because I was black. Even by the time I was in college, there were some universities that didn’t admit black students.
So one reason we celebrate Dr. King’s legacy is that he and many other people in the civil rights movement marched and protested, and even died, to end segregation. They made it possible for any child to go to any school, no matter the color of his or her skin. They literally opened doors for me and people like me.
But more importantly, they gave us hope. Hope for a better life, for a brighter future, for a world we could make our own. They made it possible to dream of not only going to college, but of someday being a professor, or even a chancellor. They showed us that anything was possible if we worked hard enough and lived up to our values.
As I’m sure Mrs. Norwood could tell you, Dr. King was a gifted speaker. You’ve probably watched his most famous speech, when he stood at the Lincoln Memorial and told America of his great dream. He could touch people’s hearts and rally their spirits. He used words to paint a vision of a society where we’re all treated with dignity and respect. And he taught the power of nonviolence, telling us that peace was still possible in the face of disrespect and even violence.
Dr. King was a teacher and a leader. He was tremendously gifted, and could have used those gifts in any number of professions. But he used those gifts for good. We celebrate him because he used his gifts to change the world for the better.
Martin Luther King was able to do this because he knew his values, and he followed them.
Think how hard it must have been. He was trying to change centuries of discrimination. And he was facing opposition that sometimes resorted to violence. It would have been very easy to have given up, or to not have even tried.
But Dr. King didn’t give up, because he knew he was doing the right thing. He knew it was the right thing because he’d seen first-hand the evils of segregation, and how discrimination hurts not only its victims but also the persecutors—closing their hearts and filling their minds with hate.
And in the face of some who resorted to violence, it would have been easy to do the same. But he did not, and he encouraged all who believed in the cause of equality to repay violence with peace, and hatred with love.
Again, Dr. King was able to do this because he knew what he believed, and why it was so important to achieve his dream. He knew that he couldn’t give up, even in the face of steep odds.
So that’s my message to you today as we celebrate the life and legacy of Martin Luther King. Use your gifts to do good. And be willing to stand up for what you know is right, even if is difficult.
Each one of you will change the world. Just through your actions and how you treat other people, you change the world each day. But you each have the potential to change it for the better—to make the lives of those around you better.
Each one of you, no matter your background, can do this. My parents didn’t have very much money at all. They always managed to keep food on the table, though there were times when at the end of the noonday meal, it wasn’t clear where dinner was going to come from.
But what my family lacked in possessions, we made up for with love and with a determination that, if you work hard, you can change your life, and you can change the lives of those around you for the better.
Changing the world starts with knowing what you believe in, and education is a big part of finding that out. You’ve been given a great gift by having the chance to go to school here. I know, it might not always seem like it when you’re taking a test or doing your homework, but there are children around the world who would give anything for the chance to go to school. And there are many adults who wish they’d stayed in school so that they could have the same opportunities that you will have.
If you stay true to your beliefs and refuse to quit, I can only imagine your futures. There are surely inventors and businesswomen, scientists and writers, painters and presidents here with us today. The legacy of Martin Luther King is one of hope, and when I see you and think about what you will accomplish, I am filled with hope for our future, and yours.
Thank you again for the opportunity to visit with you today. Please know you are always welcome at the University of Kansas, and I hope to see all of you there as students in a few years.