When Martin Luther King Jr addressed UWI graduands…

IN a sense Jamaica was lucky. Just under three years before Dr Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated on the evening of April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee, the famed American civil rights leader visited the island and delivered a stirring address at The University of the West Indies Valedictory Service.

The date was June 20, 1965, and Dr King was at the height of his civil rights activism having already delivered more than 2,000 speeches, written five books, led huge marches against injustice in the United States, named Time magazine Man of the Year in 1963, arrested more than 20 times for his advocacy, and awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He was indeed a world figure.

So when Dr King and his wife Coretta arrived in Kingston the capital city was abuzz with excitement.

The address at the UWI’s Mona campus was memorable, as King challenged the graduands to “go into the new age which is emerging with understanding, creative redemption, [and] goodwill” in their hearts.

Added Dr King: “…whenever anything new comes into history, it brings with it new challenges and new responsibilities, and the great challenge facing each of us today, the great challenge facing each of you who will have the privilege of graduating from this institution of learning, is to somehow stand before the opportunities of the moment and face the challenges of the hour with creativity, with commitment and with determination; and I would like to suggest some of the challenges that we face in our world today as a result of this emerging new age.

“First, let me suggest that we are challenged to develop a world perspective. You see, the world in which we live today is geographically one; and now we are challenged to make it one in terms of brotherhood.

“Now it is true that the geographical oneness of this age has come into being to a large extent through man’s scientific ingenuity. Man, through his scientific genius, has been able to dwarf distance and place time in chains. And our jet planes have compressed into minutes, distances that once took weeks and even months, and so this is a small world in which we live.”

He pointed to the space flight conducted, a few days before his address, by American astronauts James McDivitt and Ed White who circled the Earth 66 times in four days a distance of more than 1,600,000 miles saying: “This is a small world, and all this tells us that we have a great deal of work to do. It means in substance that through our scientific and technological genius we have made of this world a neighbourhood, and now, through our moral and ethical commitment, we must make of it a brotherhood. In a real sense we must learn to live together as brothers in this world or we will perish together as fools.

“This is the great challenge facing us at this hour. No individual can live alone. No nation can live alone. We are all interdependent.”

Urging his audience to “go all out to achieve excellence” in their various fields of endeavour, Dr King referenced a lecture by American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1871 in which he said ‘if a man can write a better book or preach a better sermon or make a better mousetrap than his neighbour, even if he builds his house in the woods the world will make a beaten path to his door’.

This, Dr King said, “Will become increasingly true, and so we must set out to discover what God called us to do, and after we discover it we must set out to do it with all of the strength and all of the power that we can muster. We must set out to do our life’s work so well that nobody can do it better. We must set out to do it so well that the living, the dead and unborn couldn’t do it any better. And so, to carry it to one extreme, if it falls to your luck to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Raphael painted pictures, sweep streets like Michelangelo carved marble, sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry and like Beethoven composed music. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper, who swept his job well’.”

Dr King also reiterated his constant call for love to counter hate. He appealed for an end to racism and oppression, and insisted that people must stand up against injustice with all their might — without stooping to violence and hatred in the process.

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