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Monday, January 20, 2014

Cantrell Avenue Officially Dedicated As...

Here is the text of a speech EMU's President Loren Swartzentruber gave at today's MLK Day dedication ceremony:

I am honored to share these comments on behalf of the faculty, staff, and students at Eastern Mennonite University.

April 4, 1968, is etched in my memory forever. Martin Luther King, Jr, was brutally gunned down at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis TN. His was a most articulate voice for non-violence, rooted in his faith as a follower of Jesus. A voice that was silenced at the young age of 39, silenced by a violent act committed by James Earl Ray. For reasons we can only imagine, Martin Luther King’s assassin was obsessed with racial prejudice and hatred.

Thirty years later, in 1998, Jules Witcover wrote a book entitled, The Year the Dream Died: Revisiting 1968 in America. Witcover walks us through the year 1968, month by month, a year in which every month seemed to embody the worst of our humanity. He began with January—the launching of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam; in March President Johnson shocked the nation with his announcement that he would not seek re-election; in April the untimely death of Rev. Dr. King.

On the day before his death, in what would be his last sermon, Dr. King said, in eerily prophetic words,

"We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop...And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over, and I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land."

In what would shortly become words filled with irony, Robert F. Kennedy, speaking in Indianapolis on the night of April 4, said this:

We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization -- black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion, and love.

Exactly nine weeks later, on June 6, Kennedy was murdered after a campaign speech in Los Angeles.

1968 was the year that many historians have dubbed “the watershed year in American history.” Many books and papers have been written about that year—I’ve read some of them, and I’ve been disappointed that no author has yet noted that it was the year that my wife and I graduated high school. (Smile)

All of us who came of age in the tumultuous years of the 60s were profoundly impacted—of course, not all in the same ways. I can only speak for myself, as a white male of middle-class origins, born in a small community of southeast Iowa which was very homogenous racially, shaped by the jolting awareness in the 60s that all is not right with the world. (For the record we scandalized some of our elders by singing “We Shall Overcome” during our Commencement Service. We were absolutely naïve but we were committed to making our world a better place.)

I learned from Dr. King and others in my own theological tradition that one cannot separate one’s faith from the call to social justice for everyone in our world. As Menno Simons, for whom my church tradition is named, put it so succinctly,

"True evangelical faith clothes the naked; it feeds the hungry;
it comforts the sorrowful; 
it shelters the destitute;
it aids and consoles the sad;
it does good to those who do it harm;
it serves those that harm it;
it prays for those who persecute it.
"

Here we gather in a community demonstration of solidarity all too rare in our polarized and divided society. I am proud to lead the first (white) university in the Commonwealth of Virginia to enroll students of color. Martin Luther King would have been pleased that my predecessors stood up to the prevailing opposition of their time to such a move. In the context of our current divisions I take great courage from Dr. King and from others who dared to stand tall in the face of conflict.

But, we are painfully aware that our work is not yet done by any stretch of the imagination and it is abundantly clear from the historical record that Dr. King would have continued his prophetic witness for a more just society.

I understand why Whitcover’s book was entitled, The Year the Dream Died, but I pray that all of us can today co-author a living book more hopeful for the present and the future, The Year the Dream was Revived.
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