MLK Commemoration: President Brodhead on the University's Debt to the Civil Rights Movement

I offer a warm welcome
and thanks to our Mayor Bill Bell and our distinguished speaker Donna Brazile;
to everyone who will enrich this celebration with their dancing, speaking, and
singing; and to every member of the Duke and Durham communities gathered here
today. This is my eighth MLK Celebration in Duke Chapel and what an
exhilarating, inspiring event I have found it. This event lets us feel the
reality of past accomplishments and the vitality of our present community, and
the call of the work that lies ahead.

First the past.
This imposing campus is only a little more than eighty years old. Its founders
had a dream. They wanted to help human life reach its highest potential: they
wanted to create a great medical center for the care of the body and a great
university to develop the mind and soul. But when Duke University was built, it
extended these benefits to some, but not to all. Like every other institution
in the segregated South -- and we all know that segregation reigned de facto in
this country far beyond its official home -- this place opened its door to many
but not to African Americans. It was part of a system designed to make people
unequal in reality by denying them equality of opportunity, conferring literal
unequal access to the means of self-fulfillment.

It never totally
worked, of course. In the deepest depths of official segregation, which is when
Duke University was built, a black architect from Philadelphia, Julian Abele, was
chosen as one of its principal designers. Which goes to show: there always was equal
talent across the racial line, and the great things humans made always were the
work of whole human family working together, even when society maintained that
the fiction of separate and unequal.

But a change has
come. A system that had stayed in place decade after decade, impoverishing its
so-called winners while it stigmatized and penalized those to whom they denied
an equal chance, that system turned out to be vulnerable and was in fact dismantled
and remade. On Martin Luther King Day we remember the historical achievement of
men and women who, against powerful resistance and in face of seeming
impossibility, created the fairer, more open, more just world we enjoy every
day. 

Duke is about to
embark on a year-long commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the
admission of African American students to Duke. We are proud that today, Duke
has among the highest percentages of African-American students of any top
university in the United States. We rejoice in the outstanding accomplishments
of these students while they are here and in the great things they will do for the
life of their time. After all, since the doors were opened, this place has been
enriched and enlivened by the very talent that once upon a time was excluded:
every day we live the truth that diversity creates the most powerful learning
environment for every one of us. And since the doors were opened, Duke's
African American students have gone on to fill every one of the social roles
that require the highest levels of talent and training. Senator Dan Blue, a
Duke Law grad, became the first African American to be elected speaker of the
North Carolina House of Representatives, and (in 2009) the first African
American chair of Duke's Board of Trustees. Professor Anthony Kelley, a double
Duke graduate and great musicologist, was the winner, this year, of Duke's highest
award for outstanding teaching. When the selection of White House Fellows was announced
this year, an extraordinarily selective national honor recognizing leadership
and public service, two of the fifteen national winners were Duke graduates and
both were African American: Reggie Chambers, whose career has been in law,
finance, and community entrepreneurship, and Kisha Davis, a physician
specializing in community health.

We are all gainers
from what the Civil Rights Movement did for this university, for Durham, and
for American society at large. Lest we ever be tempted to take it for granted,
today we stop remember how that change was made. But we know that if he were to
come back today, Martin Luther King would hardly feel that the work is done. Racial
and other forms of prejudice have had lingering power long after equal
opportunity became the law of the land. New differences in social advantage -- economic,
medical, educational -- have grown up in this country even in the official era of
equal rights. If great challenges called forth great courage fifty years ago,
let's have the courage to face these challenges of our own. This day is the
reminder that men and women can make a difference. Let's join together to make
ours a better world.