Remarks to 2015 Martin Luther King Jr. Community March and Celebration, January 19, 2015
On behalf of the entire Colorado State University community, I’m glad you’re here with us as we celebrate the memory and legacy of a great American leader, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.
I’ll admit, this year’s march and celebration feel a little different from past years. This is always a moving event — a time for reflection, a time to look forward. But this year is different. Since our gathering a year ago, we’ve added to our vocabulary — a handful of words and phrases that are now weighted with new and terrible meanings:
“Je Suis Charlie”
“I can’t breathe”
We all have our own responses to these words. Anger. Sorrow. Fear. Mistrust. We began the year 2015 burdened with the weight of all of these, struggling — as did Dr. King — for hope amid so much wreckage. But this struggle forces us to see and to recognize the real cost of oppression — human, societal, and spiritual — laid bare before us in the form of lives lost, shattered dreams, divided communities, parents left without their children, children left without their parents, prayers seemingly unanswered.
And over and over again this past year, we’ve turned to each other, in light of all of these events and under the weight of our own helplessness, and said to one another: “Something has got to change.”
And so, in this context, even more than in past years, I think it’s important that we turn to Dr. King’s own words to offer some light and to lead us forward, as they have for so long and so well. In 1966, in the famous essay, “Nonviolenece: the only road to freedom”, later published in “Ebony”, he wrote:
“Only a refusal to hate or kill can put an end to the chain of violence in the world and lead us toward a community where (we) can live together without fear. Our goal is to create a beloved community, and this will require qualitative change in our souls as well as quantitative change in our lives.”
The theme of our celebration this year focuses on the cost of oppression. And the word “oppress” in its original, Medieval derivation meant to push down, to suffocate. When the Reverend King and the freedom marchers took to the streets, they were pushing back against an oppression that had crushed spirits and lives, fueled misery and pain, and diminished our moral standing as a nation and a people.
And the forces of oppression pushed back — with fire hoses, attack dogs, imprisonment. Still, from the streets of Birmingham to the great march on Washington, King and his fellow marchers pushed ahead with the force of peace, with the power of dignity, and with tireless conviction.
And as they pushed against oppression, they pulled us toward a better future — to this time, and this place, to a point so far from where we were and yet so far still from where we want to and ought to be.
Today, as we remember and honor their courage, we also must recognize all the heavy lifting that remains. Our world remains shackled by the chain of violence and fear, injustice, hatred and bigotry — and the choice now is ours to retreat — or to push forward and upward as King challenged us to do.
Real change has to begin within each of us, as individuals and then as a community — as people of different ethnicities, heritages, genders, ages, faiths, orientations, and identities — marching together, working together, keeping each other focused on the dream we know must be, and refusing to give in to hate, suspicion, ignorance and all the forces that divide us.
And how do we accomplish such change? The word ‘change’ takes its modern meaning from French, but traces roots to both Latin where it had an economic barter context and to Middle Irish with a Celtic connection where ‘change’ meant ‘to become different’ — and it was often used in the context of prisoners.
Which brings us back to today’s theme — the cost of oppression. In many ways, we are all prisoners — to oppression, to society, to ourselves. Can we then use this oppression as an impetus “to become different”, to change ourselves and to change how we see each other?
Or will we gather every year and say again, “Something has got to change?”
And now, it’s my pleasure to introduce the Mayor of our own community, the Honorable Karen Weitkunat.