Eminent black scholar, politician, and activist Kwesi Mfume delivered the keynote speech in the University's "Living the Legacy" commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Students, faculty, and community members packed Rockefeller Chapel at noon on Monday for the event, which also featured two musical ensembles and various speakers reading selections on justice.
University President Don Randel prefaced the event by calling the occasion a time to look back and recall a life of power and commitment that was at once "nation-changing and world-changing."
"It is also an occasion on which we must remember that Dr. King's work was not finished when he was taken from us," Randel said. "We must think about how we will carry on that work and what each and every one of us will do."
Mfume, who recently stepped down as president and chief executive officer of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), began his political career as a member of the Baltimore City Council in 1979, where he served for seven years before winning election to the U.S. Congress.
After serving for a decade as a congressman from Maryland, Mfume became leader of the NAACP in 1996.
Mfume was introduced by Cathy Cohen, a political science professor in the College. Cohen described Mfume as a "catalyst for the rebirth of the NAACP, ushering in a new generation of civil- rights advocacy."
Mfume began his speech on an optimistic note: "I am glad to be here, I am glad I got up this morning," he told the crowd. In five minutes, he had the audience laughing and shaking hands with their neighbors. "Hello neighbor, hello friend, God has brought us through thick and thin," he said.
Mfume addressed his remarks to different ethnicities, exhorting them to reach out to each other and build coalitions. He emphasized the "need to get beyond blame, to get beyond excuses, and to once again start doing for ourselves."
Dean of Students in the College Susan Art was impressed by Mfume's ability to engage the crowd. "Dr. Mfume did an excellent job challenging the various constituencies in the audience to understand the relevance and urgency of King's message for the present state of our country and world," she said.
Running through Mfume's speech was the theme of speaking out against injustice. "It is important to remember that Dr. King was a young man," he said, noting that King was only 39 when assassinated. Were King here today, Mfume suggested, he would remind us of the uniqueness of the period in which we live.
Addressing the parents in the crowd, Mfume spoke of experiencing the daily denial of rights. While progress has been made in the years since King's assassination, Mfume emphasized the importance of remembering the past.
Mfume did not limit his remarks to racial inequality. "I would be remiss if I did not mention the difference between people who have and who have not," he said. "America at her best has treated those differences with a blend of common sense and compassion. America at her worst has treated them with the empty even-handedness of Marie Antoinette: Just let them eat cake, we can't be bothered.' "
Audience members responded kindly to Mfume's strikes against the Bush administration's economic policy, whose emphasis on nation-building has ignored critical domestic problems. "Dr. King would want us to make the point that our country should be less concerned with building Iraq than our own country," he said.
While Mfume argued against spending resources abroad, he acknowledged an obligation to help AIDS victims, "not only in America, but everywhere." Citing an alarming rise in black women who are infected by the virus, Mfume called the AIDS epidemic "a medical tragedy that has the making of being a cultural plague."
Mfume slammed silence in the face of wrongdoing, issuing a challenge to all present: "In an era of rampant apathy and celebrated mediocrity, we need men and women to stand up to fight for what is right and against what is wrong."
Mfume suggested that King himself would argue that the U.S. is hurt by immigrant bashing, union-bashing, and gay-bashing.
After highlighting America's flaws, he affirmed his belief in the country's potential to set an example of justice in the world.