By: Will Brummett
Last Wednesday marked the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. What many people remember most about this historic march for labor and civil rights was Dr. Martin Luther King’s, “I Have a Dream” speech. In light of today’s reality of all the problems we face—whether it’s the fact that the unemployment rate for people of color is still twice of that as whites just as it was when Dr. King gave his speech, the fact that there is an ever-intensifying situation in Syria with the U.S’s impending and controversial intervention, or the sad fact that Alamance County’s food pantry, Loaves and Fishes, is permanently closing—we are arguably in as great of need for Dr. King’s words as many were in 1963. However, the words of Dr. King I want to leave you with today are not written in 1963 nor spoken in Washington, D.C. Instead, they were words uttered by Dr. King in 1965 at a small liberal arts college in Ohio called Oberlin College. The speech is entitled, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” and below is what Dr. King says to argue his point.
“There are all too many people who, in some great period of social change, fail to achieve the new mental outlooks that the new situation demands. There is nothing more tragic than to sleep through a revolution.”
In context, Dr. King was challenging the Oberlin graduates to continue to stay informed and keep working towards justice. By the time of his speech in 1965, Brown vs. The Board of Education had already been ruled on to force schools to desegregate, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had just been passed giving basic rights and liberties to people of color, and many people, specifically those who had the racial and economic privilege to do so (read: white, middle class), began to think, “Well…ok…good job team. Fight over. You got what you want. Right?”
However, Dr. King challenged them to see that this was a civil rights revolution, not just a “civil rights period” with a start and end date. The struggle and fight was to continue, and not just across racial lines or in America, but across the world and across issues. Dr. King challenged the students to recognize that their wellbeing and freedom was bound interchangeably with other students and people throughout the world. It was not a matter of “their rights and freedom” versus “my rights and freedom” but rather our rights, our freedom.
“All I’m saying is simply this: that all mankind is tied together; all life is interrelated, and we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be – this is the interrelated structure of reality.”
In summary, we are who we are because of each other, and if some of us are still struggling for basic rights and an affirmation of dignity, then all of us are struggling for those same rights. In South Africa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu coined a word that perhaps captures this sentiment the best. The word is ubuntu, which loosely means, “ I am who I am because we are who we are.”
In this year of 2013 and with the anniversary of Elon’s 125th year of existence, I can think of no greater term or set of words to leave you with as you begin and continue your vital, justice-walking work that you each will do as students in the coming year.
It’s easy to want to fall asleep. You are already over-stretched with classes, more clubs, personal relationships, and the ever-growing unspoken Elon pressure to “do more, be more, see more….more, more, more!” Frankly, it is exhausting, and with awareness work posing an equally exhausting challenge, the pillow of your dorm as well as the pillow of your privilege are easy to want to rest on. You are already aware of many of the great privileges you each experience—economically, educationally, socially, and Elon-y (ok so I made that up)— and there is another fully set of privileges that you probably are unaware of and will only notice with time. In turn, what privilege allows you to do is what Dr. King was fighting against. The privilege and comfort of your life allows you to make friends with apathy, disengagement, and worst of all, a feeling of disconnection to your world and your fellow neighbor. However, to Dr. King, the greatest sin of our generation was not the actions of the extremists but the silence of the privileged few. He remarks,
“It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation, not merely for the vitriolic works and violent actions of the bad people who bomb a church in Birmingham, Alabama, or shoot down a civil rights worker in Selma, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, ‘Wait on time.’”
It’s going to be easy this year to say, “Wait” or worse, “Why continue?” Chick Fil-A and its controversial decision has been ruled upon by the Board of Trustees. The racist flyer incidents have come and gone. Climate change is still very present but seemingly insurmountable. Invisible Children hasn’t released a new documentary yet and Trayvon Martin and Troy Davis wont’ get their lives back. You have every reason to quit or think the long struggle for justice is over. You have every privilege to simply use your time to sleep away the bad things that may come. You have every experience of your own personal lives that sadly may tell you, “You’re on your own.”
However, there is another narrative out there. There is another dream.
It’s a dream that says despite how difficult the days may be, how low the attendance at Awareness events may become, or how confusing your tasks may present themselves, the work that you each do is important because it embodies and personifies a sense of ubuntu and interconnectedness for our world that Elon students may not get anywhere else. It’s a dream that says while you must rest to take care of your body and spirit on a daily basis, it is never the time to fully rest (or let your other students rest) on your privilege while your neighbor reaches out for help. It’s a dream that says while landmarks happen, issues and struggles are never “over,” as they are revolutions, and not just time periods.
Therefore, whether its fighting for LGBTQIA and racial inclusion on campus, children in Central Africa, environmental protections, or the abolition of Stand Your Ground Laws or the death penalty, your march today is still as relevant as it was last year, and it is still building on the work of people that have come before you and kept working to build the very momentum you get to continuing building today.
You are a part of something greater than yourself, and your time to build on that greatness is right now. As John Dunne would say, “No one is an island.” None of you are islands. We are all on one continent together–interconnected, imperfect, and in need of all the love, belonging, and justice we can muster.
Therefore, as you go about this year, do recall Dr. King’s words, both the famous and the often ignored, and never forget you are standing on the shoulders of the people who came before you. But most of all, as you embark on this important year at Elon, remember and retouch that part of yourselves that tells you and show you why you do what you do—that we are all interconnected, we all need inspiration, awareness, and education about the issues, and most of all, we all need reminders that the time to rest may be easy, but the dance of the struggle is more worthy.
You are all incredible inspirations and a part of something well beyond your years and your own efforts. May you find and embrace the energy, time, and passion to do your jobs with your whole selves this year, and may you lean on one another when your whole selves cannot do it alone. May you know that there are countless staff, faculty, alumni, and fellow students who are interconnected with and fighting alongside you in every way and with every day both now and forever more, and may you never have to doubt that what you are doing matters, as every moment you are working and serving you are helping bend that “never-ending arc towards justice” that Dr. King recalled so many years ago.
Indeed, there is a revolution going on outside. It’s time to wake up and keep walking. Bring your smiles, your fists clinched with hope and passion, and your ever-present selves (friends). We are wide awake and walking, trembling in awe though we may be.
There is a revolution going on outside, and I can’t wait to see you there. I will be waiting, no matter how far apart we may be.
My best to each of you and your year.
—Ubuntu, Will Brummett