In the course of this academic term, the United States will mark the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, which occurred on a second floor hotel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee. It was not the first time he had been targeted by a person wishing him dead. He was 39 years-old when a bullet fired from a long gun brought him down. Today, his words and voice still soar across the decades like an undying, unfinished symphony.
The generations rise up, endure awhile, and slip away, but of their legacy, if only a half century, there is a consequential history of both progress and despair. Dr. King never lived to see any of it. He missed the end of a long war and the beginning of other wars; he missed the opening of doors for significant educational opportunity and the expansion of prison doors closed behind an ever-younger population of the incarcerated. He missed the improvements in life expectancy made by medical science and also the widening gap of disparity correlating wealth with well-being.
The list of all the intervening events that he missed, including family milestones and grandchildren going to college, is infinitely long. And yet, and so, I lived to see the past half century in America that he lost, which obligates me in this hour to reflect briefly on Dr. King as a reference point for living through our peculiar and difficult times.
About ten days ago, while the university was still in recess, a 650-foot cargo ship carrying soybeans to Montreal was caught in the flash frozen water of the St. Lawrence River as it passes through the Snell Canal in nearby Massena. The immobilized and paralyzed ship was packed by surrounding ice for nearly a week; the worst day recorded wind chill readings of 45 below zero. Tugboats with immense horsepower could not budge this bulk freighter, sealed like a wooden stick on a popsicle inside the kitchen freezer. The ship was frozen in place indefinitely, its engines cooling and silent.
There have been stretches in American history like this incident on the St. Lawrence River, when the cargo of material progress gains downstream distance, when people possess the chart of a promising course to follow, and when the journey seems undeterred. And then, there is some sudden occurrence that freezes or even reverses time. In such a moment, our society, our democracy, and our ideals did not, perhaps could not, outrun the weather. It is like being trapped in ice as a pending, slow-motion shipwreck appears desperate and unable to move.
Trapped by a chilling, inescapable history that unexpectedly returns, we hear, all over again, profane, vulgar words and we see disturbing symbols that we thought were long ago dispatched by standards of decency, propriety, and sensitivity. We hear the old awful names and taunts coming back, like ghosts and gargoyles from gothic ruins, denigrating others because, through no fault of their own, save the accident of being born human, they have been named “Other.” Those who used to say such names in a whisper or a wink, now have the fresh audacity to spit them from a poisoned tongue, words we thought were so deeply, soulfully unacceptable because they would offend our mothers, let alone the loving mothers of those others.
I never thought I would see again in my lifetime the proliferation of Confederate battle flags flying over private homes and open businesses, particularly in areas of the country where so many village cemeteries are long filled with the graves of soldiers who brutally died under a national flag opposing everything the music of “Dixie” represented. Let’s call it what it is in the 21st century—a proxy for bigotry and racism, the moral equivalent of the Nazi swastika. We know it’s only a piece of cloth and we can ignore the clever code words explaining it as a latter-day heritage of the lost cause, but it’s also become a revived sign of the times that Martin Luther King would surely have recognized in his own day as meaning something else—“you’re not one of us and we like it that way.”
Some experiences and impressions may become frozen in time and memory, but they don’t have to remain that way. The ice-locked ship in Massena, as you may have anticipated, escaped its worst fate, but it took considerable work and ingenuity. High pressured hot steam did the trick of gaining the ship sufficient clearance, but all those fired-up boilers also needed the assistance of anchor cables and towlines, the indispensable and reliable equipment of merchant marine life since the era of Phoenician sailing ships.
In ancient days, the anchor of a ship, giving it both stability in the open and leverage when aground, was a symbol of hope. Like the evening star, the light of dawn, or the mountain-top view, the symbolic power of the anchor is nearby. We must find the resources of hope, the anchor and the lines, to pull ourselves out of a dangerous frozen moment trapping our best values and principles in a state of reverse history. This is a day to hold onto an anchor, hold onto the earth it grabs, and hold onto the hope rescuing the world from itself.
I see three forms of hope that anchor both my heart and mind today as we begin this new semester. I recently attended a gathering of college presidents to hear a prominent journalist speak about the world’s economic conditions that create high stakes for the American academic enterprise. As the speaker responded to questions about the social and political turbulence that infects and frustrates various qualities of the college experience today, he made an off-hand, but most important observation about students on campuses like St. Lawrence.
About this generation, he said, “they are intolerant of intolerance.” I believe that is true here and around the nation. This principle gives me hope that in our community one cannot easily ignore or fail to respect the difference of identities among us. And if one fails to do so owing to privilege, self-delusion or, worse, indifference, you will be called on it, you will be discomforted by it, you will feel its smug burden, and you will reflect on it, until your soul weeps.
All of the best traditions of faith and nation share a language of moral repair. And its starting point is in the quality of a community that is intolerant of intolerance. Professor Michael Eric Dyson of Georgetown expresses this idea in the most pithy, direct terms, “justice is what love sounds like when it speaks in public.” If we are ever to be wrapped “in a single garment of destiny,” as Dr. King believed was possible, perhaps inevitable, it will be a fabric quilted by the threads also binding up wounds inflicted by intolerance. It will be sewn by strong threads stitching together the broadcloth of fairness, mercy, and equality. It will be a seamless coat covering not one, but everyone in acceptance; a final blanket of reconciliation that ultimately understands the splendor of human sameness as prevailing over the accidental speck of difference—or there will be no difference between the ship’s fate in a frozen chamber and the going down at sea.
A second anchor of hope is an extension of the first that rejects intolerance: “human dignity cannot be banished.” I know better than to claim for dignity its permanence in human history, but I do believe in its ultimate resilience. Evidence abounds today that people and institutions have not yet abandoned the deep-down values of human dignity. I have a young friend who is a student at another university, a 220-year-old institution that has just reconsidered its omission of public support for the LGBTQ community. My friend offered a statement to the campus newspaper, a truly lyrical expression honoring the dignity of each: She said, the new university position means: “come as you are; be who you are; love how you do; and we’ll make a home for you.”
Our society, our university, is built on respect for the unceasing dignity of each individual man or woman, on each person’s capacity for goodness, promotion of truth, and defense of justice. We cannot merely pass laws or create policies to ensure any of those qualities are achieved, but there already exists an implicit social contract that dignity is a common possession and it defines a way of life. Without giving it to others or claiming it for ourselves, we are otherwise hopeless. In feeling our own dignity, but more importantly, in recognizing the dignity in strangers, we also affirm the reason for the artist to see beauty more completely, the scientist to discover proof more fiercely, and our neighbor to trust the gate more than the wall more naturally.
The lines of hope that can free us from intolerance and indignity are also connected to the most comforting words any of us can ever know: “you are never alone.” The fear of being unanchored, alienated, or unwelcome ranks among the largest worries most people face. Status anxiety, the uncrossed boundaries of class difference, and even one’s experience of not fitting-in can shake a person’s self-confidence into a state of unrelenting loneliness.
Dr. King spoke often about the “beloved community of memory and hope” and that its genius is that it has no rules of membership, except perhaps the common desire to understand with empathy the forms of suffering endured by others. Belonging to the beloved community, as the reliable presence of human connectedness, is a matter of intention, effort, and fortunate circumstances. The circumstantial part has sometimes been called by theologians grace or providence, but in more pedestrian terms, it is also known as serendipity and being lucky.
The community of experience at St. Lawrence will surely stimulate intellectual discovery while it offers a significant social education in campus life. And yet, the terms of our welcoming have not always attained the promise of feeling fully included. That remains a challenge here, but it is not absent the hope of being within easier reach. Rather, we ought to hold room for the surprise of knowing and belonging to groups or small circles we never imagined could also be our own.
I have seen this at St. Lawrence often enough to have lasting hope in its good effect: I have seen students come here from Africa and learn to ski; I have seen students come here from the Bronx and complete the Adirondack Semester; I have seen students from the North Country get jobs in Manhattan; I have seen a student from India become best friends with a hockey player from Syracuse; I have seen students first meet each other in times of need and grief—brought together by illness or death back home—who otherwise would never have met. Because belonging can still astonish, there is hope.
Toni Morrison tells a story at the end of her Norton Lectures at Harvard about a white European man who immigrates to Africa. It sounds improbable on the face of it, but this man is alone, jobless, and without influence. When he arrives, in deepening humility and depression, he has one major desire, a long-shot to meet the king of a certain small nation. Somehow, in the magic of storytelling, this unexpected event happens. The young king, bejeweled and regal, embraces this white stranger and the man even feels the beat of the king’s heart in that special moment. And then, the stranger hears the king “murmur those exquisite words of authentic belonging, words welcoming him to the human race: Did you not know that I was waiting for you?”
We may surely freeze frame the picture of our times as showing only the ugly divide bifurcating history, only the warmed-over anger behind the insults, and only the invidious sense of being left out. But like the ship in the frozen lock, there is another day to believe in: that the ship shall sail again.
Hope waits for you. It waits for all of us.
William L. Fox