Yale Bulletin and Calendar

February 1, 2002Volume 30, Number 16

President Richard C. Levin is pictured with Silliman College junior John K. Johnson, who led the drive to make Martin Luther King Jr. Day an official Yale holiday, and New Haven Alderwoman Dolores Colon from the City's seventh district.

Yale Commemorates 'Profound and
Compelling Legacy' of Martin Luther King Jr.

The following is the text of the speech presented by President Richard C. Levin on Jan. 21 in Sheffield-Sterling Strathcona Hall as part of Yale's Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration.

Today we commemorate the life of Martin Luther King. I want to salute the students, many of whom are here today, who worked to encourage the faculty to change the academic calendar so that our community could use this occasion as a day of remembrance. And I want to thank those who have worked so hard to organize today's many activities. It serves our community well to honor Dr. King's legacy by participating in a day of discussion and service.

Martin Luther King Day reminds us of our nation's past and of its possibility. It calls us to renew our energy for work that remains unfinished and to recommit ourselves, as individuals and as a society, to the ideals of racial justice and equal opportunity.

Dr. King's legacy is profound and compelling. Passionately, persuasively, he called upon our nation to match its words with deeds -- to make the American dream a reality for all regardless of race, religion, or background. He fervently believed that through his efforts and ours, that day would come. Today, his eloquent expression of this vision is as well known as the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address:

"I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed -- we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal. ... I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

When, as a 16-year-old, I heard these words, delivered on the steps of the Washington Monument in August 1963, I wept. I wept because Dr. King's vision was so self-evidently right and just, and because our nation had so far to go to make his dream a reality.

His words had a powerful impact on America, north and south. The nonviolent protests he organized provoked response across the nation. One by one, schools and universities across the south were integrated. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. And we can recall with pride that just months after Dr. King's speech at the Washington Monument, he was invited to receive an honorary degree at Yale. The citation reads:

"As your eloquence has kindled the nation's sense of outrage, so your steadfast refusal to countenance violence in resistance to injustice has heightened our sense of national shame. When outrage and shame together shall one day have vindicated the promise of legal, social and economic opportunity for all citizens, the gratitude of peoples everywhere and of generations of Americans yet unborn will echo our admiration."

But Yale did not merely offer words of tribute to Dr. King. Yale learned from him and committed to its own transformation. For it was at exactly this time that Yale College changed its admissions policies to make sure that students were admitted on the basis of their character, not the color of their skin or the religion they professed. The results of this commitment to diversity and equal opportunity were rapid and dramatic.

There were only seven African-Americans in the Yale College Class of 1965. Five years later, there were 35, and in five more years, 85. Jews, Latinos, Asian-Americans and women of all races and faiths gained from the transformation of the nature of Yale.

Yale's transformation was not limited to the composition of its student body. In 1969, we established the nation's first African-American studies program under the leadership of Charles Davis, and we soon added to its ranks with the recruitment of other distinguished scholars, the late John Blassingame among them. When I was dean of the Graduate School, it was my great pleasure to work with Gerald Jaynes to create the Ivy League's first and the nation's second Ph.D. program in African-American studies. Today, under the leadership of Professor Hazel Carby, African-American Studies at Yale is a national and world leader in the serious study of the history, culture, and condition of peoples of African descent throughout the Americas.

The broadening and deepening of our study of these issues was manifest in the recent establishment of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition -- the first academic center in the nation devoted exclusively to supporting research and extensive public education and outreach in this most important area of our shared history.

As you know, this fall a well-publicized study reminded us that Yale, like virtually all of its peers in the northeast, had many slave owners among those who built and developed the institution. Some of these men, like many founding fathers of our nation, are honored here despite their involvement with slavery. There was much discussion of this issue around the campus this fall, and I believe that most came to the conclusion that re-naming buildings and programs would not be an appropriate response. Instead, we need to deepen our understanding of the history of slavery and its pervasiveness in our society. We need also to find ways to honor as local and national heroes those who participated in the struggle against slavery, as well as those who advanced the cause of free blacks. And we will do this, as we study, discuss, and disseminate the best of contemporary scholarship on these important but neglected parts of our history.

This spring, the Gilder Lehrman Center will hold a community forum on the history of black education in New Haven, beginning with the shameful 1831 episode in which members of the Yale faculty contributed to shutting down efforts to found a black college here. Our hope is to involve Yale students and faculty, as well as New Haven schoolteachers and citizens, in this forum. The center will also prepare a traveling exhibition on slavery and resistance in Revolutionary Connecticut, which will be displayed on campus and then in public schools throughout the state. Finally, next September, the Gilder Lehrman Center and the Yale Law School will sponsor a major conference on the impact of slavery on New Haven and Yale, at which the issue of reparations will be examined from the perspectives of both law and moral philosophy.

As a great center of scholarship and teaching, efforts such as these constitute our most important contribution to the cause of racial justice, to the cause for which Dr. King gave his life. Yet as an employer and citizen of New Haven, we also strive to realize Dr. King's vision. Three years ago the Provost and I re-committed Yale to special efforts and incentives in the recruitment of minority faculty, and to the recruitment of women in fields where they are underrepresented. We have had significant success with these policies, especially in the recruitment of African-Americans to ranks of our junior faculty. We will continue, aggressively, to pursue these efforts.

Our commitment to making Dr. King's dream real extends beyond the campus. Yale gains strength from a hometown rich in racial, ethnic, and religious diversity. Just as we strive on campus to ensure the full development of human potential, so must we strive to extend that possibility to our fellow New Haven citizens.

Through Dwight Hall, the African-American Cultural Center, and other organizations, students have long been involved with New Haven. Nine years ago, building on that legacy, I committed the University to a substantial mobilization of voluntary effort and to investments in support of economic development, neighborhood revitalization, and public education. We have worked, as never before, with city government, business, clergy, and neighborhood organizations.

Each year, more than 10,000 New Haven school children participate in academic programs on campus. This summer, more than 500 local youth participated in free, full-day academic and recreation programs at Yale. Five blocks from here, in the Dixwell neighborhood, we established a Technology Access Center with the public library to help bridge the digital divide faced by too many inner city residents. These are just a few of the many ways we help expand opportunity for New Haven's young people.

The Yale Homebuyer Program is another example of your University's hometown commitment. It is the most generous and most utilized program of its kind in the entire nation, with nearly 500 participants using cash grants from Yale to buy their own homes. Homeownership is the single most important way families build assets. No university does more than Yale to help its employees achieve this part of the American dream. Nearly half of the participants in the program are African-American or Latino, and most are first-time homebuyers.

This year, because of our increased investment in commercial properties, Yale became the single largest taxpayer in New Haven. The most recent business to open in a Yale-owned property is Sandra's Restaurant on Whitney Avenue -- a hometown success story. It is the second location of a family-owned restaurant started by Miguel and Sandra Pittman. Their first location is on Congress Avenue in the Hill neighborhood, the epicenter of riots in 1967 that left the area blighted for more than two decades. The opening of the first Sandra's Restaurant a decade ago signaled the revitalization of Congress Avenue. It has become a beloved local institution, and Yale is proud to help this African-American-owned business expand to a second location downtown.

Just as the relationship between Yale and New Haven has become a national model, I am hoping to develop an equally productive relationship with our labor unions, whose members make an essential and valuable contribution to the life of the University. We are working with Locals 34 and 35 to find a new way of structuring our relationship, relying on day-to-day collaboration rather than periodic confrontation. Just as our work with the city of New Haven required participants on both sides of the town-gown divide to cast aside long-held prejudices, working collaboratively with our unions requires participants on both sides to overcome years of distrust. It requires the spirit and practice of cooperation for the common good that Dr. King embodied.

I am encouraged that both management and labor have committed themselves to explore a new way of bargaining that holds the promise of meaningful change. I want to take the opportunity to express again the respect that I have for the women and men who work at Yale and to restate my personal commitment to work with the leadership of Locals 34 and 35 to create a new and cooperative era of labor-management relations. Together, we can make it happen.

In closing, as we celebrate the life and work of Martin Luther King, I want to underscore the commitment of the University to the continued pursuit of racial justice, to further collaboration with our neighbors in New Haven, and to a concerted effort to build a new partnership with our labor unions.

We would do well on this occasion to recall the words of Dr. King's Nobel Prize acceptance speech, given six months after his visit to New Haven and Yale:

"I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him. I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality."

In remembering Dr. King, we are called not to float down the river of life, but to act. You, who are the students of today and the leaders of tomorrow, give us great hope by your commitment to racial justice and equal opportunity. Your University shares that commitment, and I thank you for giving me the opportunity to celebrate this holiday with you.


Institute gives Yale $9 million grant

Library invites public to share 'treasure' from poet Langston Hughes

Yale Concert Band to present tribute to Cole Porter

Alumnus' gift boosts international fellowship program

Goizueta Foundation endows professorship, scholarship fund


Yale Commemorates 'Profound and Compelling Legacy' of Martin Luther King Jr.


IN FOCUS: Needle Exchange Program

Library exhibit pays tribute to alumnus and statesman Cyrus Vance

Next Yale Rep play is humorous tale of a haunted vacation


Students will 'Stand Up and Dance' to benefit local AIDS organization

Tribute to The Tiger's Eye recalls 'The Art of a Magazine'

Gallery marks anniversary of major gift by recreating 1948 show

Exhibit celebrates ways language and visual form express human experience

Malbin Lectures to reflect on modernist art in America

Opera is a tribute to retired professor

Wexler awarded AHA prize for best book

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