Hearing and Heeding the Call of Martin Luther King, Jr.

January 18, 2016

On January 14, 1959, Martin Luther King, Jr., came to our campus, speaking to more than 2,000 students, faculty, staff, and New Haven residents in Woolsey Hall. Five years later, he would join the ranks of Yale alumni, receiving an honorary doctor of laws degree at Commencement. Now, more than a half-century later, our community will honor his memory throughout January.

As a social psychologist, I find it interesting that Dr. King said during that first visit in 1959, “Psychologists have a word which is probably used more frequently than any other word in modern psychology. It is the word ‘maladjusted.’ … but there are some things in our social system to which I am proud to be maladjusted and to which I suggest that you too ought to be maladjusted.” He continued: “I never intend to adjust myself to the evils of segregation and the crippling effect of discrimination.

Dr. King’s words—and, most importantly, his actions—inspired many who came before us at Yale. And recent months on our campus, and in communities across the nation, have seen a new generation raising questions and seeking solutions to complex and deeply rooted issues of racism and inclusion. Our world, our country, and our university have surely seen real progress in the decades since Dr. King spoke here, but the reality of that progress should not lead us to become so well adjusted that we ignore the hard work that remains.

That work extends beyond our campus and includes Yale’s hometown of New Haven. This past Friday, Marta and I joined with two neighbors and fellow Yale alumni—Mayor Toni Harp ’78 M.E.D. and the Rev. Kennedy Hampton Sr. ’09 M.Div.—and scores of other community members for the 46th Annual Love March at the Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church, dedicated to Dr. King’s memory. And his spirit animates other events and exhibitions including the Peabody Museum’s 20th annual Dr. King program, which continues today; the upcoming day of service organized by Dwight Hall; an illuminating exhibit, “The Kings at Yale,” at Sterling Memorial Library; and a presentation this Wednesday by NAACP President and CEO Cornell William Brooks ’90 J.D., who will deliver a keynote address in Battell Chapel. I encourage all of you to take advantage of these opportunities to participate in celebrating—and carrying forward—Dr. King’s legacy.

Universities can and should—and I am proud that Yale does—take a leading role in continuing this work. As I wrote in The Huffington Post last week, campuses “are both microcosms of society and more diverse than many other institutions. Differences too often hidden elsewhere are unavoidable here.” This is not a problem, but an opportunity; it allows us to “model, as best we can, what we hope to see elsewhere in America.”