Today we celebrate the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—pastor, scholar, and civil rights leader. We remember his visits to our campus—especially in 1964, when he received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Yale—and we consider how our university was shaped by the events and ideas of that period.
A number of upcoming anniversaries remind us of the sweep of changes that took place at Yale in the 1960s and 1970s. In April, we will celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Yale’s Latino student organization and the forty-fifth anniversary of La Casa, the Latino Cultural Center. We will also commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Asian American Students Alliance, the organization of students who led efforts to establish the Asian American Cultural Center. In the fall, we will begin a year-long celebration of women at Yale, including fifty years of coeducation in Yale College and 150 years of women at the university. The Afro-American Cultural Center is celebrating fifty years since its founding throughout the 2019-2020 academic year, culminating with events on April 17-19, 2020. Our cultural centers—important community spaces open to all students—are one element of a vibrant legacy left by the student pioneers of the 1960s and 1970s.
Yale students, influenced by the civil rights, anti-war, and women’s rights movements, led efforts to open our campus and classrooms to a greater diversity of people and ideas. A lasting consequence was their success in bringing scholarly attention to understudied fields. Along with their work to establish the Afro-American Cultural Center, students called for greater research into and teaching about the lives and experiences of people of African descent. In 1968, Yale established one of the first African American studies programs in the country.
Yale students and faculty members continue to look for new ways to understand our society and world. Courses exploring “the long civil rights movement,” the experience of Mexicans and Mexican Americans, urban issues, African American poetry and literature, the Civil War and Reconstruction, and many others deepen and broaden our students’ understanding of the past and the present. We further advanced Yale’s commitment to groundbreaking and interdisciplinary scholarship in 2016 when we established the Yale Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration.
In activities today, over the weekend, and in the weeks ahead, the Yale community will honor Dr. King’s life and work. Although the university is closed today in observance of the holiday, students, faculty, staff, and community members are invited to take part in one of several opportunities to reflect on Dr. King’s legacy. Today, the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Conference at Wexler-Grant Community School in New Haven includes workshops, exhibits, and activities. The Peabody Museum of Natural History—open with free admission today—is hosting a variety of activities for children and adults. Yale’s annual commemorative event, “Think Globally, Act Locally,” will take place on Wednesday, January 23. Free and open to the public, the panel discussion will feature organizers from the local faith, advocacy, and artistic communities. I hope you will consider attending.
Despite many achievements, racism, discrimination, poverty, inequality, and environmental degradation still plague our society. In the face of setbacks and grim news, I take heart from the efforts of Yalies—from so many generations—who have labored to create the “beloved community” Dr. King envisioned. On this day of service and reflection, please join me in looking forward to a day when peace, justice, and freedom are a reality for all people.