Speeches & Commentary

37th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration Remarks

Delivered January 15, 2024 at the Danforth Campus 37th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration in Graham Chapel

Good afternoon.  I am pleased to join all of you this afternoon for WashU’s annual commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the essential work that he did to advance equal human dignity for every person in this country.  Thank you to the committee who planned and organized this event for putting together a thoughtful program today.

I am excited to be sharing this stage with Dr. Adia Harvey Wingfield from the Department of Sociology.  Her research and writing helps us better comprehend the subtle impacts of racial and gender inequity in all facets of life, particularly in our workplaces and our politics, and suggests ways in which we can fix the problems that perpetuate racism.  I can think of no one more fitting than Dr. Wingfield to discuss this year’s theme, “The Dream at Work.”

There is no doubt that Dr. King knew that the work he did in his lifetime was but one step in a long journey toward justice, inclusion, and equal dignity for all people.  So much of Dr. King’s outlook espouses not only the goal of a just society but also the determination and effort that we must invest in order to reach that goal.  Dr. King spoke of continuous struggle, of the value of taking small steps, of the persistent sacrifice required to achieve great things.  

We look back over the 56 years that have passed since Dr. King’s death, and the progress that we have made to date can appear to some as if we have achieved Dr. King’s dreams of freedom and justice for all.  Yet the divide between the haves and have-nots of this country still, too often, reflects the age-old biases of race and gender.  The basics of our life experiences – our education, our wealth, our treatment by others, even our health outcomes – are still, too often, determined by the happenstance and history of race and class.  Our schools and communities no longer operate under rules that require segregation, but a great number of Americans still live their lives largely isolated from those who look different from themselves.

We cannot change our experiences and expectations overnight.  Nor can we rest on the laurels of the progress that we have already made.  Instead, we must continue to identify the ways in which we fall short of our ideals, and find solutions to bridge those gaps.

At WashU, we have tried to address those challenges head-on through our Here and Next strategic vision, which lays out specific steps that we can take to meet our commitments to our students, our employees, and our community.  This year, our campus welcomed five new restaurants, each one an outlet for a local minority- or woman-owned business, and committed part of our budget to support these new ventures.  We have established a policy to diversify our network of suppliers, connecting more minority- and woman-owned businesses with WashU contract opportunities.  We have created an Office of Institutional Equity within our Human Resources Department to advance our commitment to fair treatment for all members of the WashU community.  And we have examined our pay, benefits, and mentorship opportunities to ensure that we are creating a climate of equity among our employees. 

Each of these programs may seem small when it stands on its own, but each program, taken in consideration with the others, marks a significant stride toward our overarching goals of equity and inclusion.  Just because change happens incrementally does not make it less valuable, nor indicate insufficient urgency.  We take the steps we can, and anticipate that the journey ahead may take longer than we intend.

The work toward a more just and inclusive society is ongoing, just like the labor that the Greenwood Cemetery Preservation Association invests in restoring the St. Louis area’s first non-sectarian cemetery for African-Americans.  WashU is honored to have representatives of the association with us today to receive the Rosa L. Parks Award for Meritorious Service to the Community, for their work to restore this historic and important landmark to its former glory.  That restoration has not occurred overnight, and it happened only because concerned members of the community came together to invest their vision, time, and energy in a common goal.  Despite the progress the association has made, its leaders know that there is always another task at hand, whether they are paving a road to allow access to the grounds, restoring grave sites that have suffered from neglect, planting trees, or simply keeping the grass mowed.  Every project, big and small, contributes to the larger goals of preserving what is important, and improving what needs repair.

As we leave this ceremony today, let us recommit not only our hearts but also our hard work to advancing equity and justice, and remember that each of our efforts, no matter how small, contributes to the greater good.  May all of us at WashU continue to find new ways in which we can make our community, and the world at large, a fairer and more equitable place.  

Again, it is my privilege to be here, to address you all today, to congratulate you on your contributions, and to dream about what we can achieve next.  Thank you.