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January 22, 2010

MLK was realist and idealist, prof says

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While Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was an idealistic advocate for equality, he was also a practitioner of a double-edged pragmatism, Princeton professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell said in her keynote speech in honor of the civil rights leader last Friday.

“[He was] not a starry-eyed dreamer, but a political realist,” said Harris-Lacewell, a former U of C political science professor.

She cited King’s marginalizing civil rights organizer Bayard Rustin for his socialist beliefs and homosexuality, and his refusal to support the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, as pragmatic sacrifices made for the sake of his larger social goals.

Harris-Lacewell pointed to the power faith had in the civil rights struggle, giving people hope in the face of decades of oppression.

“I stand in open-mouthed wonder trying to understand how black people in America came to believe in a loving, just god, when they had no empirical evidence that this was true,” she said.

Harris-Lacewell took issue with unqualified pragmatism, and looked to the civil rights movement of the ’60s as a model for an unlikely but just struggle.

“Justice cannot be about picking battles that we are going to win. It’s about embracing the battles that we are most likely to lose.”

She encouraged listeners to “refuse to lose our faith,” and described the importance of pairing secular reason with a love and commitment only possible through spirituality. “Reason without faith can paralyze,” Harris-Lacewell said. “Faith is a practice of intellectual humility.”

Harris-Lacewell also discussed how faith manifested itself in the wake of the recent earthquake in Haiti, both in the outpouring of aid to the region and the “inexplicable tirade” of Reverend Pat Robertson, who called Haiti “cursed” because of the “pact with the devil” that he claimed liberated the nation from French rule.

“I’m Hatian, so the way she brought up faith and how it was related to the relief work in Haiti was very meaningful to me,” said first-year Stephanie Joseph, who sang in the service. “I found it very inspirational.”

The commemoration also featured music from the Chicago Sinfonietta, youth drumming group Hooked on Drums, and Soul Umoja, the University of Chicago’s gospel choir.