At the keynote speech for the University’s first Martin Luther King Jr. symposium since the passage of the affirmative action ban, former Congressman Kweisi Mfume called the ballot initiative a setback.
Mfume has spent time on the front lines of the civil rights movement, most notably as president of the NAACP.
Born and raised in Baltimore, Mfume was forced to drop out of school after his mother’s death. He raised his three younger sisters but soon became involved in street crime and became a teenage father.
At 22, he obtained his GED and graduated from Morgan State University in Baltimore. He later earned a masters degree at John Hopkins University.
Mfume was elected to the Baltimore City Council in 1979 by a margin of three votes. Seven years later, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served as chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. In 1996, he left Congress and assumed the presidency of the NAACP.
Students praised Mfume’s speech.
“His speech didn’t speak to just the academics,” Social Work student Victor Harrell said. “It spoke to the political, social and spiritual aspects of what Dr. King stood for.”
In an interview after the speech, Mfume said he hoped his speech would drive students to action.
“It’s got to find its genesis in the heart of students,” he said when asked about how students could cure social problems. “I try to ignite the passion in them.”
University President Mary Sue Coleman also spoke at the symposium about the University’s future after Proposal 2, which banned affirmative action in admissions.
She assured the crowd that the University will do everything within its legal power to maintain a diverse and active student community.
“We want a mosaic of students,” she said. “We will always work to attain such diversity, affirmative action or not, because it is the right thing to do as a great public university committed to academic excellence.”
But Coleman, who declared that “Michigan is diversity” in a speech on the Diag the day after Proposal 2 passed, toned down her rhetoric.
She said the University “is known first and foremost for its academic excellence” and spoke about a need for the University to enroll a student body diverse in many ways, not just racially.
“We want students who are Croatian or Canadian; students who speak six languages or have lived in six countries; students whose parents have struggled to provide for them, or whose parents run America’s corporations,” she said.