Dean Madison Presents Keynote Address at Campus-Wide MLK Day Event

January 17, 2023

Heller School Interim Dean Maria Madison offered the following keynote address at Brandeis University’s campus-wide memorial of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on January 16, 2023. These remarks have been reformatted and edited for web distribution.

Thank you to the Brandeis community, Habiba Braimah, Leroy Ashwood, and to Monique, Elba and the entire organizing team, including service and IT staff, and to my co-presenters at today’s event. It’s an honor to be here, as the granddaughter of a southern Baptist fire-and-brimstone minister, WHT Gillespie of Teague, Texas. It is humbling to be here honoring Rev. King, a man referred to as the “moral center of the country” by A. Philip Randolph. This is a day to remember that we are tied in a single garment of destiny, a garment that included a multicultural population, from Coretta Scott, and all persons. 

Creating this national holiday required bipartisan support, beginning with President Carter in 1979, observing that we live in “An America that had never been, of the America that we hope will be.” This culminated with President Reagan signing the bill in 1983 (15 years after Rev. King’s death), making the third Monday in January a federal holiday, observed nationwide, by 1986.

I want to take the next 10 or so minutes to address three key themes:

  1. Why do we remember Rev. King at Brandeis?
  2. Why now?
  3. Why you? Our clarion call to action.

First, why remember Rev. King at Brandeis – This day gives us the critically important opportunity to remember and mobilize against racism and resistance to justice and equity: for civil rights, voting rights and desegregation of the mind, body and spirit. This holiday asks us to reflect on Dr. King, the son of a distinguished minister, a Morehouse College graduate majoring in sociology, later earning Doctorates of Divinity and Philosophy at Boston University, then becoming pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia.

At the young ages of 29 and 34 years old, Rev. King visited the Brandeis campus twice. Once in 1957 and again 1963 (just a few short years before his death in 1968). His visits occurred at two pivotal time periods in American history, following centuries of oppression and subjugation particularly against BIPOC/ADOS (Black, indigenous, people of color/African descendents of slaves).

During the year of Rev. King’s first visit to Brandeis, the Civil Rights Act of 1957* became the first federal civil rights legislation passed by the United States Congress since Reconstruction (i.e., the Civil Rights Act of 1875, designed to "protect all citizens in their civil and legal rights" including indigenous people, and with implications for voting rights). 

Dr. King’s first visit to Brandeis occurred three years after the Supreme Court's ruling in Brown v. Board of Education which brought the issue of school desegregation to the fore of public attention, as Southern Democratic leaders began a campaign of "massive resistance" against desegregation. 

Shortly after his second visit, in 1963, demonstrations culminated with the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28 to protest civil rights abuses and employment discrimination. Dr. King helped lead mass movement of 52,000 Blacks in the Montgomery bus boycotts of segregated buses, ending the Jim Crow system in public transportation in Montgomery and sparking the movement elsewhere, a movement as much about civil rights as about ending poverty for all. 

I’d like to share a bit of the Q&A during Rev. King’s visit to this campus, and ask the audience to reflect on its meaning today:

King stated at the time of his visit to Brandeis, “I have had a great deal of admiration for Brandeis University from its very beginning, for its liberalism and for its rich academic emphasis. [People] are grateful now, and they will be in the future for what Brandeis is doing for the cultural life of the nation.”

When asked by the Brandeis moderator, whether Rev. King wanted to change the laws or change society, Rev. King responded that, “True peace…is the presence of justice, …not merely to get laws changed, but also to change the hearts of people…” He went on to say, “Now I think it’s necessary to change laws and hearts…The ultimate aim is to bring people together in understanding good-will so that they live together as family and that they live together in understanding good will.” We can’t just teach policy, we must teach anti-racism, empathy, ethics, and honesty.

When asked by the Brandeis audience how change may come about, Rev. King replies: “We are in a period of transition, and it seems to be both historically and biologically true that there can be no birth and growing pains, and philosophers all the way from Heraclitus of Greek philosophy to Hegel of modern philosophy have said that growth comes through struggle.” This is evidenced by, for example, the rippling effects of the long civil rights movements leading to this campus, including such events as the Ford Hall protests in 1969 and 2015, which connect to me standing here before you.

When asked what the essential ingredients were for creating equity, Rev. King describes, “Segregation has caused economic inequality and voting inequality. It has caused lags in certain standards, cultural standards, and even moral standards at times. These are the effects of segregation. These are the changes society must make (ending economic inequality, ending poverty, creating universal civil rights, desegregation of hearts, minds and bodies).

One could argue that Rev. King’s overarching themes in speaking at Brandeis were:

  1. “Privileged classes do not give up their privileges without strong resistance.”
  2. All members of society should be able to stand up with dignity, equity and honor.
  3. Justice and nonviolence build strong, vanquished, coalitions, as opposed to violence, which escalates fear,  contempt, and more death. 

There is a unifying theme in Rev. King’s speeches at Brandeis, resonating from generations of allies;  Muslims, Jews and Christians such as Rabbi Heschel and Rev. Shuttlesworth who peacefully marched with Dr. King on the Edmund Pettus Bridge from Selma to Montgomery, for the right to vote, for example. Why was the right to vote lost in the first place? Because equity was being built, threatening white privilege and power (lynching, etc.) disadvantaging poor blacks and poor whites.

Numerous renowned and lesser-known people carried the torch of social justice at least one hundred years before King. Black, brown, white, straight, gay, men and women, from Thoreau and Gandhi to women such as Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. Harper, herself, was a free Black 19th century poet, suffragist and abolitionist during reconstruction. She wrote, 100 hundred years before Rev. King, “we are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its soul.” 

The throughline, for which Dr. King picked up the relay race across centuries, is to end poverty for all, not to pit one race against the other, but rather that “we are all bound up together” as France Ellen Watkins Harper states.

It was with the backdrop of the nascent modern civil rights movement, that Rev. King visited Brandeis. When he spoke of “justice without violence,” the segregation crisis in the South, and his theory and practice of nonviolent resistance, and the clarion call for financial equity, to end poverty. “Our budgets are moral documents.”

Second, I ask us: Why now? Why is it important to recall Rev. King now, in 2023?

At Rev. King’s 1957 visit to Brandeis, he warned, “Whenever you have a struggle, sometimes it takes a long time to develop, and this struggle has taken a long time to develop certainly, and has been developing over the centuries. But let us remember this, that the struggle will continue.”

The origin of our national cultural/demographic divide spans centuries with a direct throughline to today. Quoting the former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, “The peril to voting is not unprecedented,” from the perceived threat posed by the first civil and voting rights acts during reconstruction, through to Shelby v. Holder, the supreme court case eroding voting rights in our current lifetimes, following 8 years of the first Black U.S. President.   

Rev. King is a reminder of the longer civil and voting rights movements, the relentless backlash, and the imperative for desegregation. The struggle does continue, from 1619, then Reconstruction, the long Civil Rights movement, onward to today.

Quoting Dr. Rhona Vonshay Sharpe of the Women’s Institute for Science, Equity and Race, 2022, “The 2022 Equality Index illustrates how precarious social and economic gains are for Black Americans. The Index is an aggregate analysis of centuries of structural racism that can be a starting point for crafting policy to dismantle anti-Black racism in America,” where “never before has the nation seen such an insidious and coordinated campaign to obliterate the very principle of ‘one person, one vote’ from the political process, particularly through gerrymandering.”

To quote the State of Black America report by the National Urban League, “It is, in every sense of the term, a plot to destroy democracy.” In 2008, Black voting rates matched white voting rates for the first time in history. The backlash was swift with Shelby County v. Holder, gutting the 1957 Voting Rights Act. The National Urban League report shows how state and federal lawmakers, political operatives and violent extremists are working to disenfranchise, delude, manipulate, and intimidate American voters in seeming response to the Replacement Theory fear (reminiscent of the lessons and violent backlash reported through the Black Cabinet during Reconstruction) and Yascha Mounk’s description of why diverse democracies fall apart, due to their inability to navigate diversity.

We ask for the community to embrace, in the spirit of the recently unveiled sculpture “the Embrace,” by Hank Willis Thomas. We are part of the solution and the long civil rights movement. 

Third: Why You?

We are soldiers in correcting the narratives and lifting up love and justice, symbolized through that embrace. It was actually Theodore Parker, an 18th century minister from Massachusetts, who said, “The moral arc of the universe bends toward justice.” That arc captures all demographics and can’t bend without a “solidarity dividend.”

Rev. King at Brandeis said, “I think we have a responsibility…to demand that your senators, your congressmen take a positive stand.”

“Flood them out with mail and with letters, create a climate of public opinion and let the world know that you are with the moral forces of goodwill. And I think that will do a great deal to block the loud noises that we hear from the South land, from the rabble rousers and the reactionaries, for it’s my firm conviction that they constitute a numerical minority. And we’re going to need all of the pressure and all of the persuasion that we can to defeat all of their tactics, their delaying tactics and the methods that they’re using to block the laws of the land.”

As individuals: Reclaim your vote by pushing back on the recent attacks on our voting rights through changes in polling locations, reducing the number of places to vote, voter identification laws, limits on early voting, and reducing voting by mail. Check your registration status, know the voter ID laws in your state, know where to vote, make a plan well in advance for when and how you will vote, and reclaim your vote by voting in federal, state, and local elections for people and legislation.

In closing, the end of segregation (of hearts, minds, and bodies) starts here in the Brandeis family. Let’s keep our hearts close as a reminder that we are “solid as a rock.”

When asked why Brandeis, why now, why you, our answer is because we are a beloved community committed to creating equitable and just societies. In the spirit of the multicultural social justice warriors historically and in this room, and paralleling the words of Rev. King, “The time is always right to do right.” Through strength, pride and empathy.

Thank you.