The University of Texas — Austin, TX
January 21, 2019
This is the speech President Fenves gave during the program for the 2019 Martin Luther King Jr. Day Community March and Rally after being introduced by Leonard Moore, Vice President for Diversity and Community Engagement and Professor of History at The University of Texas at Austin:
Thank you, Leonard, for that kind introduction and for your outstanding leadership.
I thank all the elected officials who we recognized a few moments ago for being here.
I’d also like to thank Brenda Burt; Ted Gordon; Cherise Smith; my friend and fellow president, Colette Pierce Burnette (President of Huston-Tillotson University); and newly elected state Representative Sheryl Cole for joining us and bringing this celebration to life.
And thank you all for being here this morning. Welcome to The University of Texas.
As some of you may know, Dr. King spoke on this campus in March of 1962, only six years after the first class of African American undergraduates had enrolled at UT — the Precursors. Though desegregated in terms of admissions, UT was not a hospitable place for African Americans in 1962. Black students and faculty weren’t accepted into clubs and associations. Black students weren’t allowed to live in certain dorms, participate in certain activities or represent the university in Athletics.
But these were the formal types of segregation. Racism shaped life for students here and at many colleges across the nation. There were professors who didn’t support students because of their race. Threats of violence and intimidation towards minorities. Bullying. And segregated businesses throughout the South, Austin included, that shut their doors on millions of Americans.
This was the climate that Dr. King entered into when he spoke to a packed room of 1,200 at the Texas Union, just half a mile up the hill from where we’re standing now. It was a turning point in our history as a university. One where UT had the choice to push forward and better ourselves, or turn back and cling to fear, hate and inequality.
It was fortunate Dr. King was here to lead at that time. And good thing there were UT students who were conscious, compassionate and motivated to lead change for a new generation. Because of them, we didn’t turn back. We pressed on.
In his speech here, Dr. King called for an end to segregation. He encouraged peaceful protest. Nonviolence. Love and compassion for others. His words were potent. They connected deeply with people. And they inspired action.
Students, whose protests had brought integration to many of the businesses on the Drag, started pressing for further progress at UT. They marched. They rallied. They spoke out. And as time went on — one by one — the arcane practices of subjugation that had defined our society started to wither.
It wasn’t just because of Dr. King that this happened. It was because good people, who had been silent or silenced for too long, made their voices heard and demanded change. And many of those who led the way were students — students like so many of you here this morning.
And today, in 2019, I see you doing the same thing as they did. Exercising your right to shape our society for the good of all. To fight for a future that is more just and equitable.
As President of UT, I see your strength every day on campus. And not only does it inspire me … but … I’m listening. I’m listening to you, and you’re helping the university. And I want to thank you for that.
The evening after Dr. King spoke at UT, he had a reservation at a nice hotel in downtown. But his safety was a major concern. So, his plans changed. The Union staff set about making a small bedroom for him in an upstairs office. Shirley Bird Perry, who worked for the Union at the time, bought linens and towels for Dr. King and brought items from her house to decorate the room. They tried to make it feel like home. A safe haven on our campus.
For one night, over 50 years ago in the Texas Union, members of our community made a temporary home for an American hero. The man who fought for justice and helped change the fate of the nation.
When this annual march was established by UT students in 1983, and the statue behind you was built in 1999, we created a home for Dr. King and his ideas here on the Forty Acres. It wasn’t a day or a night anymore. It was every day and every night. Which is how it will always be here at UT.
Dr. King said, a “dark yesterday can be transformed into” a “bright tomorrow.” He was here for our dark yesterday. And his ideas and legacy will guide us to that bright tomorrow.
Thank you all.