Office of the Provost


Remarks at Martin Luther King Jr. Day Breakfast

Jan. 15, 2018

Good morning. I’m Martin Philbert, provost of the University of Michigan. It’s a pleasure to welcome you all to the university’s 32nd Martin Luther King, Jr. Day symposium.

This annual honoring of the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is an important event on our calendar. It has a special resonance this year as today is the actual anniversary of Dr. King’s birth. He was born January 15, 1929 in Atlanta. He would have been 89 today.

It is wonderful to see the group assembled here, coming from so many different parts of our southeast Michigan community. The events of this day - and carrying into the next several weeks - draw us together, giving fresh energy and connections that help us carry out the work to which Dr. King and many others dedicated their lives.

Hill Harper, an accomplished actor, will give the keynote address today and so it seems appropriate to begin with words from Shakespeare, words that reinforce this year’s symposium theme, the fierce urgency of now.

In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare was addressing a difficult historical moment, when the decision to act, to do something now, was of great consequence. He wrote:

There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

(Julius Caesar, Act IV, Scene 3, Line 218-224)

We are at such a moment now. The world is roiled by conflict. Many act to sow divisions among us rather than to work toward the beloved community we seek to create.

Our choice then, as Shakespeare and King tell us, must be to act. If we fail to “take the current when it serves” we will lose what we have gained thus far.

The challenge to all of us is to think and act creatively. We have many tools to use. These include time-tested door-to-door campaigning by community activists, an action that was important to Doug Jones’ victory in Alabama last month. In addition, there are newer tools, such as the use of big data and social media that propelled Barack Obama’s re-election as president in 2012.

But tools alone are not enough. We must search for and work with allies who share our commitment to justice and whose background and experience, perhaps quite different from our own, will help us to imagine and develop new tools and new paths forward.

While the work before us should not be underestimated, we should not be discouraged. Instead, let us heed the advice of President Abraham Lincoln who, in 1862, faced a deeply divided country. In his annual message to Congress that year he wrote, “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate for the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise to the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.”

May the many events of the Martin Luther King Jr. symposium lead us to new ideas and actions.