The University has long prided itself on pursuing open discussion and creating a safe, open environment that is conducive to its aims. Conceivably, the University tried to further those aims in its celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who opened doors for multiple levels of society and changed our nation’s morally corrupt racial and social policies. In this light, it would be a shame if a significant portion of the campus consistently felt alienated and maligned by what should be a valued University-sponsored event. Yet that is precisely what happened last Monday, when Julian Bond, president of the NAACP, spoke at Rockefeller Chapel and led many students to feel disenfranchised.
We are certainly not saying Bond’s political views are not worth considering on Martin Luther King Day. The problem stems from the fact that Bond’s especially flippant asides—such as his endorsement of Kanye West’s claim that Bush doesn’t care about black people, or his view that the failed response to Hurricane Katrina stems from Republican racism—would not receive a fair hearing if they came from the mouth of just any keynote speaker the University would ever invite for the event.
In terms of potential speakers for the closing ceremony of the Martin Luther King Day events, Bond is eminently qualified. He is strongly connected to King’s legacy. Bond was King’s right-hand man and has maintained a strong, unflinching dedication to King’s mission for the past 35 years. Yet it is inconceivable that the University would not be aware of his long history of making controversial comments. Of course, we are not calling on Bond to change his style of discourse. Bond is a known quantity. Our point is that the University must consider its central aims in selecting speakers for an event arguably receiving more attention than just about anything on campus (we didn’t even get a day off from class for the inauguration of Zimmer).
It is disappointing to think that such a major University event, which was intended to promote open discussion and tolerance across all social spheres, could have instead led to more division and resentment. It’s one thing for a campus organization to invite a controversial speaker to campus, but when the University cancels classes and sponsors a campus- and community-wide event, ideally the speaker would deliver a message acceptable to individuals across the spectrum. When Kweisi Mfume spoke on campus two years ago, for instance, he was able to express his clearly partisan beliefs while still maintaining a balanced level of discourse. While Julian Bond has perhaps a more direct connection to Martin Luther King’s vision than anyone else in the world, one has to wonder if his divisive political commentary serves as the ideal message from a University-endorsed speaker.