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Dan Blue: Let Founders' Day Honor the Courage of Duke's African-American 'Firsts'

Part of the Celebrating the Past, Charting the Future Series
In his Founders' Day address, State Sen. Dan Blue recalled the history of integration at Duke.  Photo by Megan Morr/Duke University Photography
In his Founders' Day address, State Sen. Dan Blue recalled the history of integration at Duke. Photo by Megan Morr/Duke University Photography

Among the great honors of my life is the opportunity to speak with you today on this special occasion of Founders' Day. Even through the rigors of law school, I came to cherish this place, but at no time did I figure I would deserve this high honor. I thank you Dick. I am pleased to talk to you briefly from Luke Powery's stage, highlighted at this particular celebration.

Founders' Day 2013 marks 175 years of Duke University's presence in some form; 175 years since the seed which would bloom into this international powerhouse university was planted as Brown's schoolhouse in current day Trinity, North Carolina, a little town with a population less than half the Duke student enrollment, about 75 or 80 miles from here; 155 years since that little school morphed into Trinity College; 122 years since Washington Duke and Julian Carr had it moved to Durham; 112 years since Founders' Day began as Benefactors Day to thank and recognize Washington Duke and the strong supporters of the college; and just 89 years ago since the campus which is now iconic began taking shape for the modern Duke University after James B. Duke's indenture in 1924 and his death in 1925. So celebrating Duke on these fronts is always a fitting glorious and wonderful occasion.

It is particularly special this year because it marks the culmination of a nine month long celebration of the 50th anniversary of the first black undergraduate students desegregating this place.

The great historian, author and James B. Duke Professor of History, Dr. John Hope Franklin, said: "If the house is to be set in order, one cannot begin with the present; he must begin with the past." So on this day, let us look briefly at the past in the context of this 50th Anniversary celebration. We give special recognition to those five courageous African American students -- Mary Mitchell Harris, Gene Kendall, Wilhelmina Reuben Cooke, Cassandra Smith Rush and Nathaniel White -- who, 125 years after Duke's beginning, walked onto this campus at the end of the summer of 1963 to learn and to grow. They did not come here seeking to be heroes, but came because something in their 17 and 18 year old minds told them the same thing that is told to tens of thousands of students each year who apply here, that Duke held the best promise for helping them realize their greatest potential.

And so they came to a place where they knew they would encounter some hostilities, a place where there were no black professors, no black trustees, no black administrators to turn to if they had second thoughts about their decisions to be here or if they needed someone with a common background to lend an attentive ear or offer an encouraging tongue. But they knew that their presence here carried the hopes and aspirations of the black maids, janitors, cooks and service people at Duke, and black people in Durham and across this country, for better opportunities for themselves and their own children. They knew the heavy burden riding on their shoulders.

We can reflect on that time 50 years ago, but as we reflect on the past we have to be careful … for backwards reflection can prove a snare to forward progress. We cannot allow ourselves to become paralyzed by the past. This paralysis manifests itself in two distinct ways.

First, we become so ashamed by past mistakes that we cannot mobilize to right those past wrongs-we become defensive or deny their existence. We spend our time lamenting what we didn't get right or on the flip side we spend our time in bitterness blaming what was wrong. In either case we miss the opportunity to lead.

Prior to 1963, Duke -- as many good Southern institutions at the time made its share of missteps, as history has proven. In the fall of 1963, when these first African American students set foot on this campus, there were still separate bathrooms and a section at Wallace Wade Stadium reserved for "coloreds." Duke was one of the last very good universities to take down the walls of separateness and segregation and its caution and hesitancy was emblematic of the state in which it was located. Those were confusing and troubled times in North Carolina, an era marked by a virulent white supremacist movement and many politicians who pandered to it, or at least refused to condemn it.

Duke's civil rights history leading up to 1963 was similar to many leading institutions at the time, stops and starts, old attitudes and customs colliding with new ideas and enlightened thinking.

Just a few days before these five undergraduates began their Duke experience, hundreds of thousands of people gathered in Washington to hear Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. talk about his dream. [Incidentally, we just commemorated the 50th Anniversary of that historic March on Washington].

Just a couple of months after they arrived, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy marked the most tumultuous decade in our state and nation since the end of Reconstruction. There were marches and tear gas, an unjust war [Vietnam War] and an establishment slow to recognize the changes that a new generation demanded. Duke and Durham were not immune or isolated. It was a tough decade for Duke and for its uneasiness with its black students. There were marches here too, sit-ins, student protests, and even the Allen Building was occupied. Fundamental change is hard. Rearranging the power structure is never easy. Justice delayed is indeed justice denied. But Duke persevered and grew from the days when those five students sat down for their first classes on a previously all-white campus.

Duke could have become paralyzed by its past, lamenting its slow, at times hesitant, stroll along the road to racial justice and equality. But, it did not. Should Duke have been on the forefront of the civil rights movement, integrating its campus before 1963? I think we would all agree that it should have. Of course, you have to be careful of judging the past with modern perspective. But, even with that caveat, Duke could have done better.

Duke, after all, had been the first southern white college to allow Booker T. Washington to speak on campus; it had allowed Julian Abele, a black architect, to design the West Campus, and from the late 1930's forward, the Divinity School had been aggressively agitating for desegregation on campus. Further, our neighbor in Chapel Hill had desegregated its graduate schools in 1951 and the undergraduate school in 1955. Then Governor Terry Sanford had positioned North Carolina as a moderate state on civil rights issues, unlike the rest of the south. That climate enabled the sit in movement to begin in Greensboro and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to be organized in Raleigh, both in 1961.

Yes, Duke's progress should have been swifter, but visionary leadership is not always on stage when the curtain call comes, even if the supporting cast is primed to go.

Did Duke allow its previous slow recognition of equal rights to keep it from embracing racial equality once it realized that integration was the right thing to do? No, it did not. Instead, this University took charge. An anecdote best proves this point. In his autobiography, Dr. Franklin described the climate best: "Duke University, no pioneer in the admission of African-American students or the employment of black faculty, was by the time that I accepted its job offer seeking to redress both … Duke was willing and eager to improve its record." Indeed, by 2003, "the University led the nation's major research universities in the successful recruitment of African-American faculty and students."

Duke recognized its past mistakes, corrected its course and then led with great vigor and tenacity. And by doing so, it did something else: it moved onto the stage as a hungry, deserving, great national and international university. In so many ways, the story of Duke University, a now legendary institution, founded with its own original sin, is no different than the story of the United States.

The second way we risk becoming paralyzed by the past is by believing past performance is sufficient. We can get so caught up in self-congratulatory pats on the back for past victories and accomplishments that we start to believe we have done enough or that it will be self-sustaining. In other words, we start believing our own hype and becoming complacent.

It is not enough that in the area of racial equality, that Duke admitted five African-American students or worked through the difficulties of the '60s. It is not enough that we have made tremendous progress with black faculty, staff and students. We cannot congratulate ourselves for these feats and think that is sufficient. It is not enough that Duke attacked race, color, religion and gender discrimination on campus, including recognition and embracement of its LGBT community and extending benefits to same sex couples, or discouraging self segregation on campus.

While we stand here and celebrate the progress we have made, our accomplishments as an institution, and the brave souls who made it possible, we must interpret the historical significance of these and act on what is happening currently in our community, our state, our nation informed by the lessons we've learned. There are always forces to compete with and undo what we have done.

Dr. King reminded us that the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice, but there are folks in high positions in this state and nation whose policies are making that arc longer, making more people suffer, forcing us to refight some of the most important battles of the last 50 years, the right to a wage that supports a family, the right to decent affordable health care, the right to economic opportunity, even the right to vote.

The current assault on the progress we have made together, the attacks on education, the rolling back of the rights of women to make decisions about their own health care, the dismantling of the mechanisms we created long ago to help folks who are struggling to find work or need help feeding their families.

We are at another of those crossroads in our history, in some ways very different from where this campus and this state and this nation were 50 years ago.

It brings to mind something else Dr. John Hope Franklin said-after the disgrace of how our government responded to Hurricane Katrina and the unimaginable human suffering it caused.

He said, "It's not so much Katrina as a phenomenon as it's Katrina as a metaphor for what our society has become. It reflects; it's a mirror of what we've become-super-extraordinarily complacent." Super-extraordinarily complacent. That's not far off from what too many of us had become in recent years, maybe taking our progress for granted, proud of what we achieved, almost oblivious to the forces that wanted to turn back the clock.

You see, here is the thing. The moral arc of the universe does indeed bend toward justice; but it doesn't always bend on its own. That's our job as members of the Duke family, as enlightened and educated citizens and as beneficiaries of the largesse and vision of James B. Duke, the leadership of William Preston Few, Terry Sanford, Keith Brodie, Nan Keohane and Dick Brodhead, and the courage of the five students who came here 50 years ago.

Our job is to make it bend and bend faster!

We cannot know how James B. Duke would assess things today, but I believe we can reasonably speculate. He was a man of his time. But, he was also a visionary and a globalist, who had the foresight to found a great institution that is capable of serving this world. Indeed, in Article Seven of his Indenture of Trust, he recognized that education is next to religion as the greatest civilizing influence and that instructions in history, "especially the lives of the great of the earth" will help develop our resources, increase our wisdom and promote human happiness.

So some 89 years ago, he brought forth a new Duke University whose leaders could proudly proclaim an outrageous ambition to be the best, a vision of knowledge in service to society, a Duke Engagement around the world; leaders who could plant the Duke flag in Singapore as a medical school and China as a new university; leaders who could help develop Nobel laureates and championship basketball and other athletic teams. Yes, leaders who have positioned Duke as a top 10 American university in almost all meaningful measurements, but simultaneously, who could commit Duke to a path of leadership in racial, color, religious and gender equality.

Looking back now, it seems inevitable that this campus would be integrated, that the "colored" signs would come down and the faculty and student body would finally reflect the community in which we are located, or indeed, the world. And maybe it was inevitable. Maybe that's why Mr. Duke specifically set forth his directive for a study of history. To teach us that it would have happened much later if not for the courage and the will and demands of people who were not willing to wait for the arc to bend on its own.

And we can't wait now. Too many people are out of work and cut off from the help they need while they look for another job. Too many people in our community do not have access to affordable health care while the country's political machinery is paralyzed by zealots crusading to overturn a law that flawed or not, will expand health care to millions currently without it. Too many children are not getting the education that will enable them to have a shot at competing to come to Duke. And too many people have fought and bled and literally died for the fundamental right to exercise their right to participate in this democracy for us to sit idly and complacently by while that right is being eroded and weakened and even taken away from some of our fellow citizens.

Let us use this Founders' Day of this great university to commemorate the courage of the five students who changed this campus forever 50 years ago, but also to recapture and reinvigorate that spirit for the battles for justice and freedom that we face today. That's the best way to honor our past, to use it to help the next generation that walks on this hallowed ground today, to bend that arc a little faster. Justice delayed is still justice denied. Students of today, muster that same energy and resolve of those students 50 years ago: dive in and do not let the modern day justice deniers have their way. Not here in our community. Not here in North Carolina and not here in these United States.

Forever Duke!