As a neurosurgeon, Dr. Benjamin Carson said he has often encountered people who are surprised by the color of his skin.

Paul Wong
Dr. Benjamin Carson, a neurosurgeon at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institute in Baltimore, gestures while giving the keynote address of the University of Michigan”s Martin Luther KIng Jr. symposium yesterday.<br><br>DAVID KATZ/Daily

“People interpret ignorance as racism or hatred when it”s not. We must have tolerance,” Carson said. “The fallout of September 11 has made people, look, talk to each other differently. Why are we so interested in dividing ourselves into so many groups? We have a lot in common. Everyone is trying to emulate us (the United States). We should be proud of who we are.”

Carson, director of pediatric neurosurgery at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institute in Baltimore and the keynote speaker for this year”s Martin Luther King Jr. symposium at the University of Michigan, echoed King”s dream to not be judged by skin color.

“Martin Luther King Jr. would not recognize someone for the color of their skin, if it was black, white, yellow, or red, but he would recognize people for who they are. It”s about character, not skin,” he told a packed Hill Auditorium yesterday. “Our brain makes us who we are, not the color of our skin. When I operate, I can”t tell where my patients are from.”

Carson, an alum of the University”s Medical School, was chosen to be the 15th annual symposium”s keynote speaker because he has done outstanding work in the medical profession, authored three books and embodies the theme of the symposium “honoring, challenging and living,” said Juanita Merchant, an associate Medical professor at the University, when introducing Carson.

“He honors his mother, who insisted he have the best education, he overcame the challenges of growing up in extreme poverty, and keeps Martin Luther King”s dream living and breathing,” Merchant said.

Carson focused on the achievements of the country”s diverse population. “There have been tremendous contributions by many ethnic groups. The United States became number one because of its many talents. Diversity is a wonderful, wonderful thing,” he said. “Using talents to positively affect the lives of others is what Martin Luther King was interested in. The life he lived made the lives of other people better.”

Carson said his mother strove to make his life better, leading him to choose a career that would allow him to help others.

Although Sonya Carson had only a third-grade education, she wanted life to be different for her family, her son said. Juggling three jobs at times, Benjamin Carson said his mother made her sons read books on a weekly basis and write a report on each of them, even though she could not read what they wrote. “Eventually, no book was safe in my grasp,” he said, mentioning his voracious appetite for reading that developed from his mother”s rules.

Sonya Carson”s strict policies helped turn her son from the fifth-grade class dummy to one of the smartest students at his nearly all-white high school, he said. “I could have done anything as long as I took advantage of my special gifts and talents. I chose a wonderful career that allowed me to make a real difference in people”s lives. Medicine gave me perspective on life. It makes you not feel sorry for yourself.”

Carson and his wife co-founded the Carson Scholars Fund, rewarding “smart and charitable” students with the same “impressive trophies” that athletes receive. Carson said the scholarship wants to help young people see that it”s OK to be nice and smart.

“Superficial knowledge is abundant in society. We live in a society where people can tell you about the Golden Globes, but not the capital of Malaysia,” Carson said. “There have been other pinnacle nations during history that lost their moral compass and went down the tubes. That”s already happening here. Will we follow the path of these countries?”

Carson”s speech is one of 65 MLK-related events that make up the University”s month-long celebration.

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