The University Record, January 28, 1998
Harvard's Cornel West was the keynote speaker at the Martin Luther King Symposium. Photo by Bob Kalmbach
In a time when many are uneasy at the specter of a future without affirmative action, best-selling author and Harvard University professor Cornel West kicked off Martin Luther King Day festivities Jan. 19 by invoking the uneasiness felt by another man in hard times.
In the inspirational tones of the Baptist ministerial tradition reminiscent of Martin Luther King Jr.'s own oratorical style, West took the crowd at Hill Auditorium on a journey to understanding King as a great but complex man, who persevered despite his fears and doubts about the future of America.
"We do not want to put him on a pedestal," West said. "We must attempt to situate him in situations bigger than him--what kind of winds were at his back to make him who and what he was?"
King, said West, was in many ways disillusioned with America. He had no proof that the majority masses in the country even wanted to treat Blacks equally. "Yet," said West, "he still proceeded to believe in the power of American democracy.
"Martin Luther King Jr. came out of a whirlwind of white supremacy, yet he still had the will, the hope, the courage to love--and willingness to sacrifice. Is it possible to embody in our ideological and collective lives the sense of hope across our religious, political and ideological lives as we move into the 21st century? It is certainly possible, but it is unclear whether we as a people have the capacity."
West pointed much of his lecture toward the recent lawsuits brought against U-M admissions practices. He attributed much of the nation's sentiment against affirmative action to poor working class economic conditions and he implored the audience to look more critically at things the government says.
"When we hear fellow citizen President Bill Clinton say the economy is in such good shape, we ask 'Who do you have in mind?'"
Most economic gains in the past 20 years, West contended, have been made by the top 20 percent of the population, while wages "stagnated and slowly, incrementally are just beginning to increase."
West urged people to "understand the fate of affirmative action not by individual biases, but on how, in fact, economic context shapes and molds people's perception of oppression . . . in a moment in which wages are stagnant and declining, there is a tendency to want to scapegoat the most vulnerable rather than confront the most powerful. To blame the newcomers," West said gravely, "those new faces in colleges and universities."
West contended that the difficulties of living in a multi-racial society have been exacerbated by the introduction of the "unprecedented unleashing of market forces" where everything operates according to the "ultimate logic of the market culture."
In such a society, West said, "values such as community, fidelity, relatedness are pushed to the margins." While market systems have their virtues, admitted West, they also have their vices, causing poverty and isolation.
Whether we have the ability to keep alive the tradition of struggle exemplified by King, said West, depends upon "whether we have the non-market values and non-market activities in place strong enough to keep alive a tradition that highlights love, care and service to others." Martin Luther King Jr. never called anyone his enemy, West said. Adversary, yes, but not enemy. "Even those who pointed the rifle that generated the bullets that would rip through his body he would still call his brothers and sisters, even if they were sick and full of hate and bigotry because he knew that they were still on a continuum with him.
"That's genius, that's compassion, that's moral insight, that's the connectedness and relatedness that are so necessary."
Despite impediments, West said, King "kept his eyes on the prize. We have come here to pay homage and tribute to one who also was unclear as to whether in the long run America would turn out to be what it really could be--but he was willing to take a stand--he was going to play his part."
Third-year engineering student Damaune Journey was impressed by West's lecture. "This was something that needed to be said around here with the whole issue of affirmative action on the table," he said.
Ushimbra Buford, a third-year Inteflex student, agreed. "After you see a lecture like that," he said, "there isn't anything else to say. He made me want to transfer to Harvard to take his class--just want to hang out and talk to him for an hour. This would have been worth paying money to see."
"It was an amazing speech," said Chandra Sivakumar, graduate student in social work and public health. "What I was struck by was that he embodies so vividly Martin Luther King's vision of a just society--compassionate, but at the same time critical."
In the end, West challenged the audience to "keep your eyes on the prize. Victory is not guaranteed . . . but democracy is always worth it . . .I'm going down fighting because come what may, I want to be part of the same tradition as Martin Luther King Jr. come what may."