Students and educators from across southeastern Michigan gathered in Hill Auditorium yesterday to hear Henry Cisneros deliver the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium Memorial Lecture. Cisneros, who held the office of secretary of housing and urban development under the Clinton administration, was the keynote speaker for the year’s symposium.
Cisneros, who now serves as chairman of the urban development organizations American CityVista and CityView, said America must develop and revitalize its major cities in order to realize King’s dream of “living together like brothers.” This quote, taken from a collection of King’s sermons, serves as the theme for this year’s symposium.
Echoing University President Mary Sue Coleman, who provided opening remarks, Cisneros also encouraged voters to strike down the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, a proposal expected to appear on the state ballot in 2006, which would ban affirmative action polices throughout the state of Michigan.
Cisneros presented connections between King’s words and current civil rights issues such as affirmative action. Cisneros said upholding King’s values includes empowering America’s poor, regaining a public spirit of values and embracing the economic vitality of our cities.
Cisneros emphasized that the best way to serve King’s memory is to apply his ideas to “modern challenges.”
“Dr. King taught us these things, and it is our job to interpret his basic beliefs and values in the modern context,” he said.
These challenges include addressing the issue of homelessness in major cities across the nation and ensuring health care for an aging American population, he said.
“Eight hundred thousand people live on the streets every night,” he said, adding that 3.5 million people fluctuate in and out of homelessness every year.
The solution to this problem, he said, lies in increasing affordable housing available to the poor and minorities. “For most Americans, their net worth is in the equity in their home,” Cisneros said.
He added that while 68 percent of Americans own their home, there is marked disparity between racial groups — 74 percent of white Americans own their homes, compared with only 48 percent of black Americans.
Cisneros pointed to the importance of rebuilding inner-city neighborhoods, saying this in turn will enable the growth of the minority middle class.
This rebuilding must start by strengthening urban schools, he said. “We will not begin to build our cities without building our schools,” he said. “We must invest in smaller class sizes, provide more technology and endow the principals with the leadership to take on these issues.”
Cisneros also said in order for America to enliven its urban centers, “we must also reduce the contentiousness between America’s cities and suburbs.”
For example, many major cities in the Northern United States struggle with problems such as homelessness and lack of affordable housing. Historically, these problems have stemmed from the middle class workers leaving urban centers and moving to the suburbs, said Cisneros.
He added that recent developments in several major cities, such as encouraging the entertainment venues to relocate to downtown areas, are causing many who work in urban development to be optimistic that middle class Americans will once again return to these urban areas.
“Chicago, which had lost population for five censuses in a row, has now seen their population increasing,” he said.
He also pointed out cities such as Houston, which he said boasts the number one urban school system in the country.
“Detroit and Los Angeles are rebuilding their central cities as well,” he said.
To open the lecture, Cisneros commemorated the history of the civil rights movement, describing racial struggles throughout the history of the United States. He gave detailed descriptions of African American tribulations during the Atlantic Slave Trade, the Civil War, Jim Crow Laws and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
The 1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott, he said, paved the way for King to emerge as the nation’s most prominent civil rights leader. During the boycott, African Americans in Montgomery, Alabama “made the decision to boycott the bus system until it would change is (segregation) practices,” Cisneros said.
He recounted how King organized lectures and marchers to peacefully protest the segregation laws. He described the crossing of the Selma bridge, where marchers were met by “vicious dogs and fire hoses.”
“Literally, old women (were being) blown away by the full power of fire hoses, tumbling across the street and getting hurt,” he said.
After King’s assassination, Cisneros said, public lawmakers responded by “passing laws outlawing segregation in so many places,” and starting organizations like Head Start and other early childhood education programs.
Excited about Martin Luther King Jr. Day, students and staff received the lecture with enthusiasm.
“I thought he was really good. I wanted to hear what he had to say, especially tying into equality,” Kathy Friedrichs, who works in the School of Engineering and attends the memorial lecture annually, said.
While the memorial lecture was the main event for the day, other prominent speakers also visited the University to speak in remembrance of Dr. King. U.S Circuit Judge Harry Edwards spoke this afternoon to a capacity crowd at Hutchins Hall. Edwards discussed his latest article, “The Journey from Brown v. Board of Education to Grutter v. Bollinger: From Racial Assimilation to Diversity.”
Taking lead from his educational and professional background, Edwards explored the evolution of racial relations in the United States. Society has changed, he said, from an environment where blacks were forced to assimilate to white culture to a forum where diversity is encouraged.