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President’s Address for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Breakfast

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Keynote Address
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
46th Annual Memorial Breakfast
The YMCA of Newark and Vicinity
Newark, New Jersey
January 13, 2017

Susan A. Cole, President
Montclair State University

Good morning to all of you. I am incredibly honored to have been invited to be with you today.

Before I really get started here, perhaps it would be good to remind you all of the late great Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman elected to the U.S. Congress and the first African American woman to run for a major party nomination for president of the United States.  Shirley, who I very much admired, once said something to the effect that it was not the color of her skin or her gender that distinguished her; it was her big mouth. You may shortly think the same thing about me – the mouth part I mean.

In the room this morning are gathered many of the people who care deeply about the future of this city and its people, and we are gathering at a moment in time when the nation’s first black presidency is coming to a close, and when, both as a state and as a nation, we appear to be a bit confused about who we are as a people, and we appear to have lost a sense of certainty about how to find the road to a better future. It is in the midst of this confusion and uncertainty that we assemble to honor Martin Luther King Jr., one of the great leaders of modern times, and to remember the extraordinary legacy that he has left to our society, part of which legacy was a nation that twice elected Barack Obama as its president. As I think of Dr. King and what he achieved and where we are now, I find myself thinking of something that Eleanor Roosevelt said. She said, “We should rejoice in the accomplishments of those before us, Be proud of the heritage that we inherit, But be always vigilant that the future is ours alone to make.”[i] The future is ours alone to make.

The goal of creating a just society is never achieved, but it is always achievable. It can never be achieved, once and for all, because the composition of the world continues to change. People come and people go, and everything keeps changing around us, so we can never get there once and for all time. We can only ever be on the road to getting there, handing down from one generation to the next the responsibility to do the work necessary to the creation of a just society. And right now, at this time and in this place, that responsibility belongs to us. So today we can rejoice and take pride in the achievements of the past, we can celebrate the great leaders of the past and the heritage they have left for us, but it is no longer up to them to make the future. Only we can make the future.

That future will never be a world of perfect justice and fairness; it will not be a world without disappointment and pain; it will not be a world without unnecessary hate and prejudice; it will not be a world that will enable each of us to live our days out in an environment of perfect understanding, acceptance, and kindness. It cannot be, because people are not perfect. From time to time, we harbor resentments, we think of ourselves before others, we succumb to fear, we forget what’s important in life, we fail to trust, and we fail to stand up with integrity. So the future will never be perfect. But it can be better than it is today, and, every day, we can be working to build a tomorrow that is better than today, and, for the sake of our children, we must.

One of the things that I admired most about Martin Luther King Jr. was his unshakeable optimism. You could hear that optimism in his words when, half a century ago, on December 10, 1964, he accepted the Nobel Prize for Peace. I listened to that speech as a young graduate student at the time, and he said, as you will remember:

“I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the ‘isness’ of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal ‘oughtness’ that forever confronts him. 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.”

That optimism and that faith, he said, “can give us courage to face the uncertainties of the future.” Were Dr. King with us today, and were he to survey the raging crises fueled by hate and bigotry throughout the world, and closer to home, the young men dying on our own streets, and the ugly words being spoken in precincts of government where respectful democracy should prevail, he would be saddened, but he would not despair, and, for sure, he would say that we have work to do in this world.

So, turning to that necessary work, I will tell you that I am absolutely certain, to the very core of my being, that a better tomorrow depends upon the quality of the education we provide to the rising generations who we have in our care. On education depends everything necessary to the creation of a just society in which all people have the opportunity to fulfill their potential and to realize their unique gifts. There are many things that go into caring for our young – they need love, they need safety, they need health care, they need food and shelter, and they must be educated – if they are to be able to contribute fully to our society and if, in turn, they are able to provide for and nurture the next generation. I have devoted my life to building institutions of public higher education, and I have done so because I am absolutely certain that providing a high quality higher education to as many people as possible is, in today’s world, an essential foundation to a free and democratic society.

American democracy was, in some great measure, founded on the pursuit of religious freedom, the right of people to walk through whichever church door corresponded with their beliefs. But two other doorways soon became important in defining the fundamental qualities of our democratic system: the doorway to the schoolhouse and the doorway to the voting booth. And these two doorways bear an integral relationship one to the other. Education is absolutely fundamental to the exercise of citizenship. In 1816, Thomas Jefferson who, though not a perfect man, was absolutely one of the primary architects of American democracy, said: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free…it expects what never was and never will be.”[ii] Education, as Jefferson well knew, is the cornerstone of democracy. It is the pathway to freedom. We know it. The people know it. America has always known it. And yet we continue to fail in assuring that all of our citizens have access to the quality of education that will ensure their freedom, and by ensuring their freedom, I mean ensuring their full participation in the privileges and the obligations of American democracy and society. In 1949, Robert Maynard Hutchins, who was a great American educator and for many years the president of the University of Chicago, said: “We do not know what education could do for us, because we have never tried it.” That was more than half a century ago, and, as we look out upon our society today, as we look at people struggling to find a constructive way of life in a world that is too often violent and too often feels hostile and unwelcoming, I say that it is even more relevant today to say that we do not know what education could do for our society, because, as a whole society, we have never tried it.

We have all come to understand that we have entered the new world of the information age and the world of the global economy. New technologies can make available more knowledge in the passage of minutes than was available to a learned person in the past with years of effort. And while these new technologies have the potential to democratize access to knowledge, it also means that, more than at any other time in human history, there will be a line drawn between those who have the knowledge base to gain access to and to manipulate and use all that information and those who do not, between those who have the mathematical and analytical skills, the computer and communication skills, and those who do not. If there used to be a clear line in society between those who could read and those who could not, I assure you that the line created by the inexorable advance of technology will be far more insurmountable, far more impenetrable than the line that yesterday used to separate the literate from those who were not.

Everyone in this room understands about lines in our society – color lines, class lines, all those lines that define the opportunities that are within our reach and those that are withheld from us. Many of us in this room have personal experience of the efforts it took to cross those lines. But I say these old, familiar lines will seem trivial in the future compared to the vast distances that will separate those who will have real access to the knowledge base of the 21st century and those who will not have that access. And access to that knowledge is controlled, not completely but to a very large degree, by the experiences that people have in the classrooms of America. Assuring the quality of that experience is the most important political issue today, and the people know it. All the polls and surveys about the views of people in this country find an extraordinary commonality of opinion on this subject – from the poor to the wealthy, from the south to the north, from the newest residents in our country to people whose families have been here for generations – they all share a similar view that educational achievement, and particularly access to higher education, has become the central qualification for full participation in the American way of life, just as access to free public school education had been in an earlier century.

When we speak about the achievement gap in our schools, about the shortage of qualified teachers, about the lack of adequate scientific equipment, about schools that do not feel safe for our children, about schools unable to make academic achievement feel acceptable to African American boys, we are not just talking about things that will limit the career opportunities and economic well-being of the young people in our communities. We are also talking about things that, on a more fundamental level, are limiting the preparation for citizenship of tens of thousands of young people. Nationally, the high school completion rate and the college entrance rate for black students is too low and has not been growing. In 2015, about 215,000 black students entered college as freshmen. Based on the overall black population, if black freshmen were entering college at the overall national rate, there potentially could have been about 300,000 black college freshmen. In short, every year our society is losing the benefit of up to 85,000 educated black citizens, with the talents and abilities they would have brought with them. That is an irreparable loss to our nation.[iii]

Let me touch on a related gender issue. Starting in the 1980’s, women of all races across the country began to reverse the prior historical trends and started earning a majority of baccalaureate and masters’ degrees, and, since 2005, they have been earning the majority of doctoral degrees. Women fought long and hard for equal access to higher education, and they achieved it. We need to continue to encourage our girls to claim their full place in society, in all professions and occupations; the battle for the rights of women is far from over in our country. However, at the same time, and especially in communities stressed by poverty and the social obstacles born of discrimination, we need squarely to face the fact that we are losing too many of our boys. Our boys come into this world strong and beautiful and full of promise, and, by the time they are teenagers and should be preparing for college and their futures, we have lost too many of them to lack of confidence, to hopelessness, to social pressures that drive them away from education and toward destructive patterns of behavior; we have lost too many to drugs, to death, and to prison.  Let me give you two grim statistics. For every 100 black girls aged 15 to 19 that die, 310 black boys of the same age die. For every 100 girls across all races under the age of 18 held in state prisons, 2,532 boys under the age of 18 are held in state prisons.[iv] And, of course, those numbers hit struggling communities hardest, and they quite simply are not numbers we can accept or live with.

According to the most recent federal data,[v] which is for 2014, the number of black males in the U.S. participating in higher education at the undergraduate level was about 925,000, while the number of black females was about 1.5 million. In other words, black women have a much higher college-going rate than do black men, and women earn 64 percent of all bachelor’s degrees earned by African Americans. Similarly, when it comes to post-baccalaureate graduate or professional enrollment, black males constituted 110,000 enrollments, and black females 256,000 enrollments, giving black women a substantially higher rate of attendance in graduate and professional programs, with women earning 70 percent of all master’s degrees and 64 percent of all doctoral degrees among African Americans. Similar gender differences exist among all racial and ethnic groups, but, again, those differences hit economically stressed populations hardest, disrupting families and destabilizing communities when the lack of educational preparation leaves large numbers of men shut out from good jobs and the ability to participate constructively in the economy and to contribute to the support of their families. We must continue to support our girls, but we have to save our boys.

Perhaps many of us thought, when we had the blessing of the election of the nation’s first black president, that the struggle would get easier. But the struggle for a just society never gets easy, and we need to keep fighting for our children. We need to fight for schools that are safe havens for rigorous learning and the development of character, aspirations, courage, determination, and understanding. We need to fight against those who would usurp our schools for political reasons, or who seek to make money off our children, or who, through incompetence, bad policies, graft, or corruption, siphon away the resources that should be supporting the education of our children. We need to fight for the right of our children to nourishing food, decent and safe shelter, and competent and accessible health care, so they are fit and able to benefit by school. We need to fight for rational appropriations to support our public institutions of higher education and for state financial aid policies that do not, as they now do, penalize the tens of thousands of students who attend and who want to attend public higher education institutions. We are not there yet; this battle is not yet close to having been won. Too many of our children do not wake each day into a world where they feel able or welcome and encouraged to pursue their dreams.

I speak to you today as the president of New Jersey’s second largest university, an institution of 21,000 students that for more than 100 years has dedicated itself to serving the higher education needs of our communities. Just in the last six or seven years, we have generated close to $13 million in federal grants to support Newark schools in programs such as the Urban Teacher Residency and for Mathematics education; we brought over $3 million in corporate and foundation grants to prepare excellent science teachers for the Newark schools, to support summer programs for students in environmental and computer science, to create bridge programs in the performing arts, and to support the professional development of teachers. We have raised scholarship funds for thousands of Newark students, and, today, there are about 3,500 students from Essex County, with the largest number from Newark, studying at the University. How many people here today are going to, went to, or had a family member go to Montclair State? Raise your hands. But, with all that the University has done, the efforts we have made have not been enough. We need to do more, and, today, I pledge to you that we will do more to contribute to your efforts. If you invite us, we will come to your schools and work with your teachers and the students. If you invite us, we will come to your community organizations and your churches and talk to the young people and their families. And we will expand the opportunities for you and your children to visit the university, so that they can see for themselves what the world of higher education looks like, and see for themselves that it is for them, that the doors are open for them. And I hope you will come. Let me point out again, Dr. Karen Pennington, our Vice President for Student Development and Campus Life. Take her card. Call her. Let’s do the work.

I know, as surely as the sun rises in the morning and sets at night, that fully participating, productive, and creative citizens are not born into this world; they are made by education. The great Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of Bethune-Cookman College, said, “Education is the great American adventure, the world’s most colossal democratic experiment,” and she was absolutely right. We must educate for economic opportunity; we must educate for the pursuit of useful professions; we must educate for culture and the love of learning; but, above all else, we must educate for democracy. And that means educating citizens who are prepared to act responsibly in the world. It means teaching and modeling open-mindedness, fair and balanced pursuit of the facts, the maintenance of a broad perspective, respect for disagreement; it means teaching and modeling tolerance, decency, and fairness – the very hallmarks and foundations of the democratic society. Of course, people with that kind of education will build a better world. And that is what we must aim for, and we must start at the beginning, with the birth of each child, and never forget that citizens are not born; they are made by education and by the efforts of all of us.

Dr. Vivek Murthy, is a young man of 39, who was born into a family that emigrated from India to England, and ultimately to the U.S. and who was appointed by President Obama as Surgeon General of the U.S. He recently was quoted in The New York Times as saying simply and perfectly what I am trying to say. He said that he has “come to believe that America is a promise we have made to one another.”

As president of Montclair State University, I promise that our University is here to stand with you as we wrestle with the awesome challenges we face to build the society our children deserve, taking with us Dr. King’s optimism, refusal to despair, and absolute faith that “when people get caught up with that which is right and they are willing to sacrifice for it, there is no stopping point short of victory.”[vi]

Thank you.


[i] From David B. Roosevelt, Grandmere, A personal History of Eleanor Roosevelt, New York: Warner Books, Inc., 2002, frontispiece, without source.

[ii] Letter to Col. Charles Yancey, January 6, 1816.

[iii] Source of data:  Postsecondary Education Opportunity, The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, Number 282, 2016-4.

[iv] Source of data:  Postsecondary Education Opportunity, The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, Number 271, January 2015.

[v] Op cit, Postsecondary, Number 282 and NCES Digest of Education Statistics 2015.

[vi] Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech to striking sanitation workers at Mason Temple, Memphis, Tennessee, April 3, 1968, the night before his death.

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