The University Record, January 28, 2002

Carson’s story of triumph over adversity MLK Day keynote

By Deborah Greene
Office of Communications

Carson (Photo by Martin Vloet, U-M Photo Services)
An excited audience of 2,500 people rose to its feet to offer an extended, warm ovation to the MLK Memorial Lecturer and U-M alumnus Dr. Benjamin Carson. “So many things happened here that defined the rest of my life,” said Carson when the auditorium grew quiet. “It’s here that I got married—now 26 1/2 years ago. It was here that I became Dr. Ben Carson. And it was here that I decided to go into neurosurgery.

“I can remember looking at the television and seeing Dr. King leading protests in the South. I saw old men beaten, attacked by dogs, people struck down by water hoses. I can remember growing up in Detroit and having my own life threatened for being in parts of the city I wasn’t supposed to be in. And I remember a white teacher in my school chastising my white classmates for ‘allowing’ me to become the top academic student in our school.”

A graduate of Detroit’s Southwestern High School, who grew up in stunning poverty with his mother and brother in their single-parent family, Carson earned scholarships to Yale University and U-M Medical School. He became chief of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Medical Institute in 1984 at age 33. World renowned for his ground-breaking achievements in the separation of brain-conjoined Siamese twins, and author of three best-selling books, “Gifted Hands,” “Think Big” and “The Big Picture,” Carson is frequently the subject of national periodical and newspaper articles, and was featured in the ABC News six-part documentary “Hopkins 24/7.” He is the recipient of more than 20 honorary degrees and dozens of national citations of merit, including The Heritage Foundation’s Salvatori Prize for American Citizenship; the American Spirit Award, the Air Force Recruiting Service’s highest civilian honor; the Jefferson Award of the American Institute for Public Service; and Johns Hopkins’ King Award for his efforts to reach out to hundreds of Baltimore, Md., schoolchildren, encouraging them to make the most of their intellectual potential.

Carson’s reach in the world of medicine also includes having the ear of the president of the United States. “The challenge in medicine is to provide good health care for our entire nation. Forty-four million people in this country have no health insurance. What are we going to do about them? As I said to President Bush last summer, there are no ‘44 million uninsured.’ They’re all insured, and our society is paying the bill. They go to the emergency room, which costs five times as much as standard medical care. Since we’re paying anyway, why don’t we do it right? There are a lot of possible solutions, a lot that can be done to breathe logic into the system. Why not issue electronic medical accounts that are replenished every month? The president was actually pretty enthusiastic about that. But that was before Sept. 11. Maybe we can get back to it soon.”

“In medicine, you have a chance to make a real difference in peoples’ lives and I am privileged to play that role.” When you deal with life and death, Carson said, you begin to understand that the things you think are problems are not really problems at all. “When I open that scalp, take that skull off and open that brain, I can’t tell where people come from. It’s all the same. Even if our ancestors came to this country in different boats, we’re all in the same boat now. Maybe we’re in different parts of the boat, but the people in first class on the Titanic went down, too. We all have to care about each other. Who would want a bouquet if every flower was exactly the same? Who would want to get up in the morning if everyone looked exactly like you?”

Recalling his childhood, Carson continued, “I was perhaps the worst fifth grade student you have ever seen. My nickname was ‘dummy,’ and I really didn’t know anything. Then my mother instituted what my brother and I considered child abuse—she turned off the television and required us to read two books and write a report every single week.”

Carson’s mother, who was one of 24 children, could not read during Carson’s childhood. (She has since taught herself to read, earned a higher ed. degree, developed a career in interior design, and received an honorary doctorate.) Yet, every week, she would “read” and place check-marks on her two boys’ reports, and spur them on to learn more and do better. “Within 18 months, I went from the bottom to the top of my class,” said Carson.

“Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was about people—recognizing people for who they are, recognizing them for the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. Today, Dr. King would have been interested in knowing if the life he led made the lives of others better.”

Carson said he and wife, Candy, have tried to make a difference in their own way by starting the Carson Scholars Fund. They now have more than 600 scholars in fourth to twelfth grade. He said the students have to be serious about their studies and be good people interested in serving their community. “We invest in a $1,000 trust fund for each one, give them a medal, and their school a trophy as big as any sports trophy you’ll see,” said Carson who says their goal is to take the program nationwide. “We want to say it’s okay to be smart. It’s okay to be nice.

“We all have to be out for each other. We all have to be interested in each other. That’s how you create family and community.

“My motto is THINK BIG:

T is for Talent

H is for Honesty

I is for Insight

N is for Nice—be nice to people!

K is for Knowledge.

B is for Books.

I is for In-depth Learning.

G is for God.

“Go forth with knowledge to live by godly principles, and so become valuable to people around you. Then, we will have one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”


The 15th annual U-M Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. symposium, “Honoring Challenging and Living,” represents what associate vice provost John Matlock calls, “by far the largest and most comprehensive observation of MLK day in the country, especially among colleges and universities.”

While we can’t possibly cover them all, The “Record” will continue to feature many of the 65 events spanning Jan. 7–Feb. 28, with stories on topics ranging from the roots of soul food to culturally sensitive research.