“We are all caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality.”

Sarah Royce

– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.


How do you honor a king? This year’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium comes on the heels of the eviction of the Coca-Cola Company from the University, a victory that has confirmed once again the ability of this student body to make real change. It is an affirmation of what we have always known: We are a campus of thinkers and leaders, of activists and agitators, of revolutionaries with college degrees.

But it is January again, and even as this campus honors a man who dedicated (and ultimately gave) his life to making equality and justice a reality, Michigan is teeming with battles yet to be fought. And in truth, Coca-Cola is small fries.

The lesson of Dr. King, who dared to defy injustice wherever it was found, is that we cannot win here and simply stop fighting, content to avenge one injustice and ignore the others even as they nag at our collective conscience and gnaw greedily at our sense of humanity.

There are issues on this campus that demand the attention of all of us – difficult, thorny, explosive topics that make us squirm in our own skin. Addressing them is a daunting task – it requires us to step outside the boundaries society has imposed on us and work doggedly to overcome the constant threat they pose to our unity.

But it is in the most trying and heated issues on this campus – racism, sexual orientation, gender expression and the fight for a just peace in the Middle East – that we find the battles worth waging. As these same battles rage on throughout the country, all eyes are upon us. We must stand together as one campus – committed and staunch in our determination to constantly redefine the frontier of progress.

The value of equality and justice is as much in question today as it was more than 40 years ago. The Michigan Civil Rights Initiative’s November ballot proposal, devoted to destroying affirmative action, is just around the corner. Yet the debate surrounding the topic has become dangerously unproductive and stale. Those who are fighting to save affirmative action and all it represents must focus on the most convincing and central argument – that race continues to play a sinister role in society. This nation can no longer afford to cast off racism as the sickness of a bigoted and vocal few when it is really the insidious disease of the silent many.

Every discriminatory inch of Proposal 2, the vaguely worded state constitutional amendment meant to prohibit same-sex marriage, must be challenged again and again and again – until the amendment is wiped off the books and replaced with legislation that respects the civil rights of all Michigan residents.

Last year alone, at least 27 Americans were killed because of the way in which they expressed their sexuality, but their deaths were not recorded as the hate crimes they were. The University’s Board of Regents is under immense pressure to amend the University’s bylaws to specifically include gender identity and expression in the nondiscrimination clause, pressure that must continue until all students are explicitly protected under the bylaws. Dr. King once wrote, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” If this campus will not stand with those individuals endowed with the courage to love and to do so openly in the face of shameless bigotry and unspeakable intolerance, this campus will not stand at all.

Then there are those T-shirts that often do little more than offend, simplifying one of the world’s most complicated conflicts with the notorious one-liners, “Free Palestine,” and “Wherever we stand, we stand with Israel.” These shirts embody one of the greatest obstacles to peace in the Middle East: the inability to engage in an honest and open debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without one group feeling as though its fundamental right to existence is challenged, and the other as though its every attempt to assert dignity for their people is met with cries of anti-Semitism.

As the rhetoric of inequality has been convoluted into politically correct language over the past 40 years, hatred has become more difficult to diagnose. But here at the University, in our time, we are confronted with the same fundamental issues as the ones King faced. And it is his indomitable spirit that weighs our consciences with those critical questions: If we do not demand change at the University, where will we demand it? If not here, then where? If not us, then who? If not now, then when?

This campus has proven generation after generation that it is capable of more than just January symposiums. But to truly honor the memory of this King we have to do more than celebrate his legacy – we have to live it as well.

“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 reality – I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”

– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.


Gay can be reached at maracl@umich.edu.

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