January 16, 2017
I’d like to welcome all of you here today to the heart of your University of Texas campus, for this treasured annual celebration of the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King. This morning we gather together as a community, a community united. We are united in our knowledge that Dr. King’s embrace of inclusion and equality, is a philosophy that we must incorporate into our own lives, each and every day.
Dr. King once said: “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable ... Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”
The last few years in our nation have shown us that the work of progress is, indeed, neither automatic nor inevitable. We have seen moments of tension and discord. We have seen moments of violence. We have also seen beautiful moments of peaceful reconciliation, like the events that took place in our state in the aftermath of the Dallas shootings, where police chief, and this year’s commencement speaker, David Brown, his officers, and political leaders, helped to heal a community that had been torn by grief.
But from all that we have seen, one thing is abundantly clear: race is an issue of the present and future, not just a part of our American past.
But that past is never far away. As Dr. Vincent noted, in September, we celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Precursors, the first African American undergraduates to enroll at UT. Their experiences on this campus in the 1950s were compromised by intolerance. When they returned to campus in 2016, they were welcomed as heroes and received a standing ovation from a Longhorn football crowd of 100,000. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house that night, and that included me. It is clear that we have come a long way since the Civil Rights Movement of Dr. King’s era, but there is no question that we still have a long way to go and a lot of work to do.
But what is that work? What can we do to make a difference right now?
At our university, we are committed to diversity and inclusivity in every area of campus work and life. To continue the progress of the past, we are collaboratively building a diversity action plan, under the leadership of Dr. Vincent—and thank you for that— to improve our policies and practices, and lay out clear standards for how we can better support diversity and inclusion. This plan will go far beyond words, it will enact meaningful and enforceable protocols for combating discrimination on campus. The goal is clear: to make sure that every member of the University of Texas is valued and that their voice is heard.
But this is just one effort being made by one university. What about you? What about us? What can we do as individuals and as a community?
There is no doubt that we all have a role to play in shaping a world that is more empathetic and equitable for everyone. Each one of you has a voice, and today you have chosen to share that voice by being here. But remember, just because you have done something positive today doesn’t mean that your work is over. We all have biases that we need to overcome. We all have to improve as individuals if we are to bring about positive change at our university, and in our world.
This idea is reflected in a quote from Kendrick Lamar, whose music, for many, has been the poetic soundtrack to these last few years. He said:
“I can’t change the world, if I don’t change myself first.”
What Kendrick Lamar meant with these words and what Dr. King preached throughout his life is the idea that change can start with one person. One person who is willing to recognize his or her shortcomings, and work to improve. By making small changes on a personal level, we, together, can make urgently needed changes as a community. That’s how progress happens. One small, but ever so important, step at a time.
Thank you for inviting me here today to commemorate a visionary leader and celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King. It’s an honor to speak on this historic occasion.