These excerpted remarks were delivered by Dean Josef Sorett at Columbia College's inaugural celebration of the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. on January 25, 2024.
To my mind, in the life of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. we find so much of what I take to be the promise, ambition and challenge of the kind of education you take part in at a place like Columbia — of the transformative possibilities of education and the importance of deep and sustained learning — of the value of learning, as we do, in the context of a collective. We are a group of people who together represent every part of the planet. In a sense, all of the studying we do not only helps us make sense of the world around us, but that learning might also be lent in service to making a different kind of world. A world that better reflects the lofty ideas we encounter in classrooms and more fully values the range of voices and experiences of everyone who arrives on this campus.
I’ve thought a lot about what I might say on this occasion. My own personal journey and scholarly life has been spent immersed in the religious and cultural traditions of the Black American experience — and so King’s life, words and work have a special importance for me, as a professor and educator. On more personal terms, I flash back to the first time I heard King deliver a speech. I can recall the debates that preceded a national holiday in his name. I remember when, in 8th grade, I was selected to deliver King’s “I Have a Dream" speech in an all-school assembly.
Perhaps some of you have your own experiences with King’s legacy — it was, for me, both an honor and, if I’m honest, a bit awkward and uncomfortable to be singled out in this way. I share this because it was an early glimpse into the uncomfortable tensions at play in our society’s often problematic ways of approaching King, as simply a proxy for race, and similarly complex topics.
The inspiration and title for today’s event comes from King’s final book: Where Do We Go From Here – Chaos or Community? I’ve found myself coming back to this question frequently as recent events across the world and on campus continue to unfold.
What exactly does this choice mean for us, and what will it take for us to discern and pursue, to re-affirm and sustain, what we share as a community. And also hold at bay, or reject, those things that are at odds with, or would frustrate, our ability to learn and live together.
Choosing community sounds simple, but it is anything but that. It requires ongoing commitment and shared conviction. And there is no such thing as community without a confrontation with countless tensions — tensions that we must embrace and recognize for the opportunity they represent. We must take active steps to reassess and renew how we define this community. That may mean something different for each of us, but I am thankful that each of you took a step in that direction today.
In the years since his death, Martin Luther King Jr.’s story has made its way into textbooks and popular culture around the nation and the world. His name, image and likeness have been lent in service, on one hand, to multiculturalism and post-racial America; and on the other, to ad campaigns selling everything from cars to Coca-Cola.
Just last week, if you surveyed the internet on the anniversary of his birth, you could find a range of competing opinion pieces, each laying claims to what King would have to say about our current moment — about the war in Gaza, about the state of Israel, about the rise of hate of all sorts in the public square.
Rather than consensus, we see the tensions that defined King’s life and work, as well as the tensions that emerge in debates about his ongoing legacy.
Tension has the potential for many outcomes, some constructive, representing profound steps forward. King often referred to a “creative tension.” But that potential can be wasted if we don’t give it its due. . . if we retreat into our own ideologically homogeneous “safe spaces,” or the endless affirmation of digital algorithms that reflect our biases back at us. In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, King framed it this way:
“I must confess that I am not afraid of the word 'tension.' I have earnestly worked and preached against violent tension, but there is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”
Our culture often overlooks, sometimes purposefully, the tensions — indeed, the multiplicity — that has defined King’s life and legacy. We often overlook the depth, scope and range, as well as the contradictions on display in his thinking and subsequent influence.
We have a tendency to discount the tensions, the complexities — and all the more so in moments of crisis, moments rife with deep social tensions.
King was a black Christian preacher and civil rights activist, and in all that he represents — and in all the ways he is misrepresented — embodies something quintessentially American, and human. His life, and its many afterlives in our contemporary imagination, offers us a revelatory lens through which we can see ourselves, our communities and our choices from new angles, new perspectives.
Put another way, if we embrace a broader view of King, we are aided in seeing a more complete picture of the tensions that permeate our history, culture and communities — perhaps, even, a fuller picture of ourselves.
Amidst a new season of tensions for our campus community, we confront, yet again, many questions that were familiar to King. When is our responsibility social critique? When is it community care? When is it a call to protest and speak out? And what does it mean to be a part of an institution that is and can never be a single thing — that by its nature resists a single point of view — and invites a community that is defined by an embrace of difference.
In the face of injustice, in response to violence and the destruction of human life, in response to persecution, to oppression, to all kinds of inequalities, our common humanity moves us to feel hurt, angered, inspired and saddened at once. And to be driven to action, with respect, by events that impact us and the communities we care about and are accountable to.
But King’s words also prompt us to ask: What does it mean to be a part of this academic community, this complex institution, and to value the more difficult path, through creative tensions, of constructive engagement, earnest discussion and dialogue?
This is a question that each of us must answer for ourselves.
Too often we fear the consequences — the tension — of opening ourselves, our ideals, our values and commitments up to critical examination. But, as King went on to say in his letter, doing so risks “getting bogged down in the tragic attempt to live in monologue rather than dialogue.”
Our program today includes selected readings from across King’s life, representing many different aspects of his leadership and advocacy. Our readers, Teji, HaYoung, DeAngelo, Sunil and Lisa, are students from the College, Engineering and GS, as well as a faculty member and an alumna. They represent different backgrounds, with different life experiences and points of view.
King’s words do not offer us simple answers or clear guidance today. Rather, our readers provide us with an occasion for reflection — a glimpse of several Kings: King as pastor, King as philosopher, King as prophet. A multifaceted portrait of a young man trying to make sense of the tensions of his day and to leave the world a bit better than he found it. It is a portrait of complexity, of tension, of broad and inclusive thinking. One which defies easy categorization. But that is the point.
As we listen, I ask you to think about the opportunity we have to make our values more real, both in terms of what our institution and community represent, and in the daily lived experience of our shared academic community — in all its complexity.