When I’m feeling the most despair about the state of the world, I read history. I don’t mean the superficial kind that implies the inevitability of human progress—those heroic tales of everyone coming around to an obvious truth. I mean the history that grapples with human failure, endless wrong turns, the lack of courage that most of us have at any one moment. From that reality, we learn how improbable are the real heroes, the ones able to perceive truth, to live their values, and to risk their very lives. From that honest history, we find not judgment, but wisdom.
On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we remember the state of the world King faced when he became the very young pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and was asked to lead the Montgomery bus boycott. He lived in a nation that trumpeted democracy but did not allow him to vote. He faced a society roiled by violence and knew that standing up with Rosa Parks would probably, someday, get him killed.
The path of the movement seems so retroactively clear—from Montgomery to the Freedom Rides to Birmingham and Selma. It seems clear because we forget all the other constant efforts, going back centuries, when our nation failed to respond.
King (and the many others whom we should all know about) made a decision, both moral and strategic, that they could not pierce the darkness with more darkness. Instead, they would summon our nation’s conscience by relying on its own ideals. They would cut through political rationalizations with the pull of faith.
They took the Gospels quite literally, heeding Jesus’ call to be willing to lay down their lives. Marching peacefully, with the newfound power of television to bear witness, they would force a country to reckon with the truth of racial violence. They would keep us from looking away.
Their victories were real, profound, and not yet complete. Our nation continues to open its eyes at some moments and recoil from the unpleasantness of shame at others. We have so much work yet to do.
I came to Fordham because of the opportunity it provides in a world where the game is still rigged. I came because of how much Fordham matters and because we have the power to do so much more, and better yet, to inspire our students to go out and do more. I’ve been digging into our progress, the work that so many of you have fought for and achieved, reading reports, asking for the data, and listening hard. I’ll be telling you soon about what I’ve found and where I hope we can continue to go.
But today, I always stop and listen to the speech King gave the night before he was murdered. That night, with prophecy, he told the crowd he had been to the mountaintop and seen the promised land. “I may not get there with you,” he said, but he knew they would.
Prayers and blessings,