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President Michael E. Hill Delivers Remarks at the Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Remembrance Service at Hurlbut Church

Good morning, and thank you for assembling in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King. The title of today’s service, “We Still Have a Dream,” is a particularly salient one for the times in which we find ourselves, and, quite frankly, is the right emphasis for where we find ourselves in January 2017.

We gather in this sanctuary to honor the legacy of one of the most important civil rights leaders in recent memory. As many of you know, I count my second home as Washington, D.C. If you find yourself there, you simply must go visit the King Memorial on the National Mall. That monument is rich in symbolism. On the site, Dr. King is a towering figure etched in granite, seen emerging from a mountain, referencing the “I Have A Dream” speech we’ll hear later this morning, in which he foreshadows:

 “With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”

Perhaps most apt, Dr. King is still partially lodged in the stone, gazing to the horizon, encouraging citizens to strive for equality and justice and signaling that we haven’t yet achieved the dream.

Memorial days are tricky, aren’t they? For it is absolutely true that it is right to gather simply to honor the memory of what Dr. King accomplished. We could go through the day, as we do so many others, memorializing facts and reciting major speeches. These remembrances have their place, and even if we only did that, it would be an exercise worthy of our time and our energy. But there is also a danger in that.

When Barack Obama was elected in 2008, many in the media signaled an era of a post-racial America. As a society, we had accomplished what would have seemed impossible in Dr. King’s day, but it also underscored that individual men and women cannot and do not solve society’s ills alone.

Just as Dr. King’s prescription of a dream did not heal the cancer of segregation, Obama's election did not, as Ibram Kendi writes, suddenly “alleviate the disproportionate amount of black poverty, or the disproportionate number of black people in prisons and schools and neighborhoods and jobs that racist policies and ideas transformed into virtual prisons.”

Michelle Alexander writes in her New York Times best-selling title The New Jim Crow about the mass incarceration of young black men in what is supposed to be an “era of colorblindness.”

The memories of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott and Freddie Gray remind us that our society continues to wrestle with equality and that our communities are still grappling with issues of fairness and justice.

Our recent national dialogue leading up to the Presidential election also demands that we find ways to grapple with even broader issues of the “other” if we are to ever realize Dr. King’s dream.

We cannot celebrate Dr. King today if we don’t find a way to link arms with our Muslim brothers and sisters in pursuit of that dream.

We cannot celebrate Dr. King today if we allow our LGBT brothers and sisters to be treated as subhuman.

We cannot celebrate Dr. King today if we denigrate and objectify women.

We cannot celebrate Dr. King today if we reduce our brothers and sisters from Mexico and Central America to a narrative of illegal immigration.

We cannot celebrate Dr. King today if we turn our backs on the plight of the refugee seeking the very American dream all our ancestors believed in and yearned for as a cover for terrorism and fear.

It is still too easy to reduce that which we don’t understand to stereotypes, which become lazy arguments and sound bites in the news, but these issues are far more complex than hiding in our echo chambers of left and right would portend.

Our celebration of Dr. King is not about remembering for remembering’s sake or seizing a podium to push a personal ideology. Quite the contrary, Chautauqua can never be left or right if it is to realize its highest calling.

Rather, this reflection is the beginning of a rallying cry for Chautauquans as I begin my service as your 18th President, and it is a reminder of another dream, that of Vincent and Miller, when they came to the shores of this lake 143 years ago.

We find that dream in our mission statement: Chautauqua is dedicated to the exploration of the best in human values and the enrichment of life that explores the important religious, social and political issues of our times; and that stimulates provocative, thoughtful involvement of individuals and families in creative response to these issues.

I want to acknowledge that this exploration doesn’t come easy. I was fortunate to be selected as an Aspen Institute Fellow this past summer, along with 12 other nonprofit leaders from around the world. We each were passionate advocates for our respective fields. Among our ranks were four African American leaders, and the Black Lives Matter movement came up frequently as we wrestled with the modern-day lessons gleaned from everything from Plato to Vaclav Havel, and what these texts had to teach us about leadership and service.

Each day I found myself wanting to understand but also fearing to ask ignorant questions or to have the courage to push back on a reality that wasn’t mine. About midway through the week, I was having dinner with one of my “fellow fellows,” a black rights activist and community engagement fellow from the Baltimore City Health Department. David was also getting his Ph.D. at John Hopkins, and has about a million more titles than those I’ve recounted to you here. He is quite possibly one of the smartest men I have ever met. He summed up his own mission by saying he was a “mercenary for justice.”

David wore all of his pain and frustration on his sleeve as we debated the state of race relations in the nation. We were at dinner together mid-way through our fellowship when we got into an interesting initially intellectual debate about the role of the faith community in the quest for equality. The conversation turned somewhat spirited when I said to David, “It appears hypocritical to me that some black churches yearn for justice while also serving as key oppressors to LGBT rights.” The conversation stopped dead in its tracks, and David said to me, “Now we can have a conversation.” We had finally laid down our pretenses to truly understand.

We spent the rest of the week genuinely listening to one another. On the closing day of the seminar, the facilitator asked us to take turns reading sections of “The Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in a circle. One by one tears swept down our faces as we realized Dr. King’s words were still sadly relevant. And David and I looked at one another with a deep well of understanding and empathy, knowing we may not ever fully understand the plight of the other but desperate to try.

When I shared with David that I was coming to Chautauqua, I sent him some thoughts on where I hoped we take the Institution go. He wrote the following:

“I certainly believe that this institution, like Aspen and the Salzburg Global Seminar that I did last year are opportunities to gain world-class philosophical and practical insight that many people in grassroots efforts should be afforded. It can no longer be elitist for no other reason than much of the significant work is done by people on the ground. Because … you get it (trust me, it is a gift from God that you do), I know you can lead a charge among these institutions to challenge the availability of their incredible resources to individuals and entities that would be so elevated by the lessons and networks that these historical organizations have.

“Please consider me a mercenary at your service.”

Dr. King wrote: “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. ... Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”

Dr. King’s dream is not at all different from the dream of Vincent and Miller. It was an expression of that human yearning to be our best selves, manifested in that time and place.

I yearn to be my best self with and for you. But if you take one thing from my remarks today, please take this. Being our best selves is not the same as being our safe selves. Or our comfortable selves. Or our easy selves. Telling all of you on a day we honor Dr. King about a hypocrisy I see in some black churches is not a comfortable place for me. It was not easy for me to share an image of me arguing with someone I love. But if I am not willing to be uncomfortable or uneasy, I have no right to ask it of you. And I am asking. We must make ourselves uncomfortable. We must accept some pain. Because if we only do what feels good and what feels easy and comfortable, we will not move forward. We will not pull Dr. King and his dream out of the stone. We will not finish the work he started.

So, I say to you, fellow Chautauquans, we are not observers of Dr. King’s dream nor are we passive passengers in the great journey toward healing that remains in our nation and the world. This is the Chautauqua Institution. Our own founding dream, with its long-held tension of being both a place and a movement, envisioned that Chautauqua would be a central driver not only in shaping our national dialogue but also in calling society to a higher purpose. Our history demands we not sit idly by and worry about the state of affairs but rather that we roll up our intellectual, moral and spiritual sleeves and do something to craft the world we want to see!

Dr. King had a prophetic dream that begged us to tap into the deep well of our best selves. So, I ask you today:

  • What role will we play, using this awesome convening power, to shape this discussion? Are we brave enough to ask the tough questions, in all our ignorance, knowing that truly listening is the first step?
  • How might we marshal Chautauquans, those who already know what we do and the many more we can bring into the fold, to achieve a true post-racial society where all will “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”?
  • Can we define a true “civil society” and turn the eyes of the nation to this corner of Western New York as an example of the best in humanity?

I have always believed in the greatness of this Institution and its power and promise to lead the greater exploration that healing demands.

The time for passive observation is over. “We Still Have a Dream.” Let’s get to work!

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