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Martin Luther King Day

By Sheila Suess Kennedy on January 20, 2014 in Civic Blog

This morning, I spoke to students at IUPUI’s Day of Service, commemorating Martin Luther King. Here are the remarks below.


There is an old Chinese curse that I’m told translates to “May you live in interesting times.” It’s considered a curse because dealing with “interesting” times—times of change and conflict—is challenging. It requires a nimble and flexible mind, a steel spine and a stiff upper lip.

Like it or not, those of us in this room do live in interesting and challenging times.

My generation has given yours a country that isn’t working very well right now, and I’d like to begin by apologizing for that. Despite some really wonderful advances in science and technology, we apparently haven’t learned much when it comes to getting along with each other, and at least in the United States, we aren’t joining forces to solve the very real problems we all face: global climate change, the growing gap between the rich and everyone else, the outsized influence of money in politics, the loss of credible media sources to keep you informed, the challenge of terrorism, the persistence of racism, Anti-Semitism and homophobia….it’s a pretty daunting list, and it’s understandable that some of you would look around and decide to just throw in the towel—plug in your IPod earphones, do your homework or your job, and devote the rest of your time and attention to purely personal activities.

That might sound appealing, but you can’t afford to give in to that understandable temptation. Your city, state and country need you—and whether you recognize it or not, you need to be involved in the civic life of your community.

Today’s activities honor the legacy of Martin Luther King. King faced a world that was more dysfunctional and immeasurably more unjust than the one we inhabit today—especially for African-Americans, but also for women and poor people. (I was about the age of most of you during the 1960s, and I remember those times well. Believe me, if you weren’t a straight, Christian white guy, the legal and social barriers were high.) King could have turned his attention to building his own church and his back to the broader society, but he didn’t—and we are all immeasurably better off because he didn’t.

Now, obviously, most of us are not going to be Martin Luther King. We aren’t going to be Nelson Mandela. We aren’t going to spark a social movement or lead a moral revolution. But just because any one of us is unlikely to change the worldview of an entire nation singlehandedly doesn’t mean we can’t do important work for social justice. In fact, without the tireless work of countless everyday citizens and activists whose names we will never know, social change is simply not possible.

Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi were like farmers—they needed fertile soil, or nothing they planted would have grown.

We all have a moral obligation to fertilize the social soil.

Let me share a bit of Indianapolis history with you that I hope may illustrate what I mean. Some of you in this room are Sam Jones Scholars. Sam was a friend of mine. I met him many years ago, when we both were young, with young children. Sam had just been named to head up the Indianapolis Urban League, a job that meant he faced some formidable odds in his efforts to achieve equality for members of Indianapolis’ minority communities.

Your parents or grandparents may tell you stories about the 50s, suggesting that those were simpler, kinder times. They weren’t. Don’t let the nostalgia fool you—the fifties weren’t the “mom’s in the kitchen baking cookies” kind of time people with bad memories talk about. (Sociologist Stephanie Coontz wrote a book about that nostalgia: “The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap.” You should read it.) Mom was in the kitchen all right, but she was just as likely to be drinking herself into a stupor as baking cookies.  Society frowned on white middle-class women working outside the home, so she was stuck there, like it or not.

If you were poor, or African-American, you also didn’t have much choice. You had to work, but the jobs available to you were overwhelmingly menial—you could be a maid, or a waiter, or a janitor—and opportunities for education were limited.

It was especially hard being an African-American in Indianapolis back then; there was plenty of discrimination and not just in employment.

I had a great-uncle who loved sports, especially basketball. In the 1950s, his friends gave him a hard time because his favorite basketball team was Crispus Attucks. Segregation was strictly enforced in Indianapolis back then, and when my uncle took his son and nephew to basketball games, they were usually the only white people in the stands behind Attucks. My uncle owned a finance company; it was one of the very few that made auto loans–or any loans–to blacks in those days.

When Crispus Attucks won the championship in 1955, a black team couldn’t even hold a celebration on Monument Circle. The team members–even its star, Oscar Robertson–were unwelcome in most of the city’s restaurants and bars.

That was the environment that Sam Jones faced for a significant part of his life. His mission was to make a difference in that environment—as Dr. King might have said, to help “bend the arc of history, however slowly, toward justice.” It took many years of persistence and effort, but Sam eventually won the respect and friendship of the civic and business community in Indianapolis, and with the help of people like my uncle, he changed the systems that made life hard for so many people, black and white.

Thanks to Martin Luther King and Sam Jones and countless Americans like my uncle, the decades of the 60s and 70s saw a “paradigm shift” in this country. Women and African-Americans gained legal equality, stereotypes were challenged, and attitudes slowly changed. Granted, there are still plenty of people stuck in the old paradigm, but progress is undeniable. Sam would have found the idea that we would have a black President in his children’s lifetime unthinkable.

The moral of this story is: Change doesn’t come easily, and it rarely comes quickly. But it doesn’t come at all if people of good will don’t work at making it happen.

Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela worked for racial justice. Women like Margaret Sanger, Susan B. Anthony, Betty Friedan and many others were passionate about equal rights for women. Jane Addams was focused upon service to the poor. Today we have prominent scientists and environmentalists working tirelessly to reverse climate change, researchers obsessed with curing cancer, city planners working to make our urban environment more bike and pedestrian friendly….the list goes on.

What these people have in common is a determination to follow their passions and to improve the world—or at least their corner of the world—if only a little bit.

Those of you participating in this day of service will be sent to a wide variety of places where people are trying to make a difference. You will visit organizations with very different missions—you’ll meet people who share a passion for change, but who are following that passion down very different paths.

You may not share the concerns of those working at your particular service site, and that’s fine. What you need to think about is why you should follow your passion, and why that passion should have a civic dimension.

Why should you have a passion for civic engagement and social justice? What’s “in it” for you?

Let me start off with the crass and self-serving reasons: involvement with a not-for-profit organization or a volunteer project generally leads to the acquisition of new skills and often, valuable connections. You learn things that will help you when you enter the job market, and you meet people with whom you can network—people who can help you. You’ll encounter businesses and nonprofit organizations and hear about job openings you would otherwise not be aware of.

There is also a good deal of research suggesting that students who are engaged in civic and voluntary activities do better academically.

More generally, engaged people tend to be happy people. An article published in Psychology Today listed 10 habits that characterize happy people; among them were cultivating strong communities and volunteering time. A quote from the article: “Acts of kindness help you feel good about yourself and others, and the resulting positive emotions enhance your psychological and physical resilience.”

There is even research that finds a positive relationship between activities like community service, advocacy, and activism and positive physical and mental health!

If you follow a passion for improving your community, you are also very likely to learn about how your government functions—or doesn’t—and to become more politically savvy and personally effective. You’ll learn who does what, and how to get things done.

Civic involvement also helps us develop a sense of belonging, helps us forge connections to communities and other people we might not otherwise encounter.

Most of all, people who are genuinely and actively involved in their worlds find human meaning through those involvements. There is enormous satisfaction in knowing that you did your best to make the world just a little better. It may sound corny, but I know that my own life has been immeasurably enriched by my own civic work. I would never have met Sam Jones, for example, had I not been involved in social justice activities.

We live in the age of the Internet, Facebook and Twitter. It has never been easier to live in a bubble, where we interact—in real life and online—mostly with people who think and act the way we do. Getting involved in a community activity or a social movement stretches our horizons, introduces us to people we would be unlikely to meet, ideas we would not otherwise encounter. It enriches our understanding, enlarges our personal worldviews and makes life so much more interesting!

Those reasons for engagement all answer the “what’s in it for me?” question. But there is also a moral reason for doing our share to make this a better world.

Ultimately, each of us has to decide where we fall on what I call the “I/we” scale.  Let me explain what I mean by that. America is a country that was founded on Enlightenment principles, and foremost among those principles was a respect for personal autonomy—the right of every individual to self-determination, our right to “do our own thing.” The heart of our legal system was the libertarian principle: your right to live as you like and do what you want, until and unless you harm the person or property of someone else, and so long as you respect the equal right of others to do their own thing. Partly as a result of that founding philosophy—which was very different from the European countries our settlers came from—Americans are known for our emphasis on individualism. We take personal responsibility, we stand on our own two feet, we’re “can-do” entreprenuers—and that’s all good.

The problem is that individualism taken too far, taken to extremes, can destroy community, and make it impossible to do the things that we have to do collectively, either through government or through the voluntary sector. The trick– the challenge we face– is to find a balance between the very American emphasis on self, what we might call our “instinctive individuality,” and our obligations as members of a community.

And don’t be fooled by the rhetoric of people who don’t understand how the world works. We need community. We need government.

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren may have said it best. “There is nobody in this country who got rich on their own. Nobody. You built a factory out there – good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory… Now look. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea – God bless! Keep a hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay it forward for the next kid who comes along.”

Warren’s point was simple—and profound. Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, we all depend upon our social and governmental infrastructure. Social and legal systems and just plain luck play much more important roles in our lives than we like to admit. And because the social and legal infrastructure is so important, we have to pay attention to its maintenance. Not only is it in our long-term self-interest, rightly understood, it is also our moral obligation.

In order to discharge that moral obligation—in order to pay our way by giving back to our communities—we need to know about the history and operation of the systems within which we are embedded. We need what I call “civic literacy.” You all are in college because you or your parents have recognized the importance of learning—learning a skill or profession, learning about the world you live in. If you are going to be a functioning, contributing member of whatever community you live in after graduation, you need civic skills, citizenship information. You can’t contribute money if you don’t have any, and you can’t contribute to the wider community if you don’t know where that community came from, what its members have in common, and what it needs to function properly.

At the end of the day, of course, this is a free country. If you don’t want to play a role in improving your neighborhood, community, state, nation or world, no one can make you get involved. If you want to plug in those earphones, watch reality TV and just hope that social problems won’t affect you—well, you’re free to live that way. There’s a reason it’s called “voluntary action”—it’s voluntary, not mandatory. No one forced Martin Luther King or Sam Jones or my uncle to work for social justice. It was their choice.

If you choose to abstain from the struggle to create a better, fairer, more just world, that’s yourchoice. The biggest loser, however, won’t be the people on that reality show. It will be you.

Sheila Suess Kennedy, J.D. is Director of the Center for Civic Literacy and Professor of Law and Public Policy in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Purdue University at Indianapolis. Her scholarly publications include six books and numerous law review and journal articles. Professor Kennedy is a columnist for the Indianapolis Business Journal and a frequent lecturer, public speaker and contributor to popular periodicals. 


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