The University Record, January 25, 1999

In celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.

‘Time to re-dream Dr. King’s dream,’ Johnetta Cole says

By Joel Seguine
News and Information Services

Though she received her graduate degrees from another Big Ten university (Northwestern), Johnetta Cole called the University of Michigan “my school” as she addressed a standing-room-only audience in Hale Auditorium Jan. 18.

In fact, Cole, president emerita of Spelman College and the first African American female to head that historically Black college for women, was awarded an honorary degree from the U-M in 1996 when she gave the spring commencement address.

“I’m proud to be an alumna of an institution that has taken such an open and energetic stand for affirmative action,” Cole said at the start of her presentation on “On the Verge of a New Millenium: What is Dr. King’s Dream?” She also paid tribute to the Business School for taking the time to stop and consider how King’s dream applies to its mission. “You can’t prepare future leaders without a strong commitment to diversity, which you show me here today,” Cole said.

Cole took stock of King’s dream by looking back at who he was, what he wanted us to do and how far we’ve come in the 31 years since his death, challenging her audience to “re-dream.”

“Martin Luther King will be counted among the most loved and the most attacked men of his or any time,” Cole said. “He was called vile and vicious names by the enemies of peace because he spoke out in opposition to the Vietnam War and in favor of ‘making real the promise of democracy,’ ” she said, quoting King.

Cole pointed out that King spoke up primarily for the welfare of Black people. “He did not speak about women, gays and lesbians, homophobes, the disabled. But he did speak passionately about the need for racial harmony around the world. Let him not be the last to speak of it,” she urged. “Dr. King believed that the greatest tragedy of his period was not the [noise] of the ‘bad’ people, but ‘the appalling silence of the so-called good people.’ ” Our responsibility now, Cole said, is to break the silence and “re-dream Dr. King’s dream.”

“We’re still judging people by the color of their skin, the shape of their body, their gender, their ethnicity—all irrelevant to a person’s character,” Cole stated. There are ongoing violent conflicts around the world based on prejudice and hatred in the Middle East, the former Yugoslavia and the island of Cyprus, she noted. “Asia has some of the worst prejudice and bigotry based on centuries-old animosities. We must understand the real size and complexity of these issues,” Cole said.

“In our own country this past year a Black man was dragged to his death behind a pick-up truck in Texas and a young, gay college student was brutally beaten and left for dead in modern-day lynchings that occurred out of hatred and prejudice. Hate crimes increased 20 percent in 1998. We have a lot of work to do and we’d better get to it, because the dream could turn into a nightmare,” Cole said.

“The good news is that hatred and prejudice are not genetic,” she proclaimed. “Racism, chauvinism, bigotry are learned and reinforced socially and politically. What is learned can be unlearned. And we could just stop teaching it!

“Mostly, what we can do is change. For change to occur, three conditions are necessary,” she said.

• “We must believe that it is possible for people to live decently with each other.

• “That belief must be turned into action—vote, bring pressure to bear on legislators, teach children that our strength lies in our differences.

• “We must take individual action through service to others—tutor kids, comfort abused women, help an AIDS victim.