Office of the President

Martin Luther King Prayer Breakfast

Martin Luther King Jr. Day Remarks
Martin Luther King Prayer Breakfast
January 16, 2012

The tradition of a prayer breakfast on Martin Luther King Day is appropriate to Dr. King’s legacy. We have work to do; let’s draw strength from our sense of a higher power, and then let’s get to it.

St. Mary’s College of Maryland bears a historically significant legislative charge. Although there has been a school on the banks of this river since 1840, the College was recast in 1992 as the State of Maryland’s honors college. When the honors college was created, it was charged by the state to fulfill “the promise of public education, accessible to all, and thriving on diversity.”

By enlightened legislation, St. Mary’s College  has an historic charge to embody “the promise of public education, accessible to all, and thriving on diversity.” We must maintain the high standards of an honors curriculum—and yes, we do lots of reading and writing here. But, unlike the history of America’s most selective and most rigorous liberal arts colleges, we are charged not to be exclusive, but to offer this liberal arts education “accessible to all, and thriving on diversity”

I like that phrase, thriving on diversity.  We are not intending here to be merely tolerant; we are not intending here to be multicultural on posters and viewbooks and in pretty pictures. We are intending to thrive on the very essence of the American tradition of welcoming all comers to the table.

What was that? Some of us may recall different American traditions, some not so welcoming. 

I visited the Martin Luther King Jr. monument in Washington, DC, this past December. It is an unnerving testimonial in some ways. Something is holding Dr. King back, he stands with arms crossed, emerging from this large white massive stone – but is he falling back or moving forward? Is this man trapped in what lies behind him, or is he emerging from that past to define the future, as if to fulfill a dream?

It brought to my mind the powerful essay by James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, written to his nephew in 1963, on the 100th anniversary of the emancipation of American slaves. It is angry, loving, despairing and hopeful.

James Baldwin says that the first step towards having a future anywhere is to know and to own our past. “To accept one’s past—one’s history—is not the same as drowning in it,” Baldwin continues; “it is learning how to use it.” Baldwin’s conclusion about using the past is a message I wish to impart to our students at St. Mary’s College, to inform the question I shall pose to this campus this spring:  Are we thriving on diversity?

Baldwin concludes: “And here we are” [in the United States of America] – and I would add, at St Mary’s College of Maryland, “at the center of the arc ….  Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise.”  

Are we being held back or are we moving forward? Is that mass of history behind us a tether, or a launching pad? I like James Baldwin’s response, in words that came to my mind on that winter morning standing before the massive marble image of Dr. King:  it “is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise.”

James Baldwin published The Fire Next Time the same year that Dr. King delivered his great speech, “I Have a Dream.” That dream remains with us, remains in the attitude we hold toward what may be accomplished by the strength and will of our own hands. We have no right to assume otherwise.