(Editor’s Note: This speech was given by Marshall Scott ’14 at the opening ceremony in Memorial Chapel for MLK Week. Scott is from Virginia Beach, Va., and majors in sociology.)
Last August, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and today in remembrance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. we take a moment to consider the progress made since the Civil Rights Movement. No longer are people of color being sprayed with hoses by policemen, no longer are people of color being chased and bitten by police dogs, and no longer are people of color being forced to move to the back of the bus.
Yet the fight for equality goes on.
The fight has moved from the streets back to our courts and legislative bodies. In one fell swoop, the U.S. Supreme Court dismantled the Voting Rights Act. Multiple states have enacted laws to hinder the voting rights of people of color, the poor and the elderly, and more states are in the process of doing the same. Economic justice is elusive. The average American worker works more than 40 hours a week, yet cannot afford a decent standard of living. Thirty five percent of our country’s wealth is held by 1 percent of our country’s population.
Full equality for people of color, women, the poor, and the LGBTQ community has not been realized. There is more than enough room for progress. It is absolutely imperative we progress. We must do better. We owe it to those who came before us, ourselves and those who will follow us. We must always strive for justice, economic fairness and peace.
But what does it mean to “do better”? We all at one point in our life have been told this either by a professor or a coach. Maybe even a relative or a friend. Who knew such a simple statement could have so much meaning behind it and could be interpreted in so many different ways. Depending on the time and situation, these two words could mean anything. They could mean hearing and listening to the words of others. They could mean examining yourself and being aware of your actions. They could mean stepping outside your comfort zone and into someone else’s shoes. Or perhaps even acknowledging what privilege you have and taking action to relinquish that privilege. For me, to “do better” at this point of my life, means to grow up, take control of my life, speak up and say what needs to be said even if others don’t want to hear it. We all should strive to do better, in our own way.
Race is the discussion we all don’t like to have. Like a significant portion of America, when acts of racism occur, we become fearful of what might happen next. Individually, we are fearful that there’s an off-chance we may be labeled as a racist due to what we say or what stance we take on the situation, and as a collective, we are fearful that our inexcusable racial history might be brought up in a discussion. Our white brothers and sisters don’t want to feel guilt by being reminded of their past ways and actions. As people of color, we don’t want to be reminded of the shame we endured during those horrific times. As a result, a lot of us choose the easy way out by not talking about it so we don’t have to confront, acknowledge or admit how we may play into these racialized roles every day. However, this type of response is not okay. We have to learn how to discuss race and understand how to handle these uncomfortable situations when they do arise.
In October of 2012, slanderous and homophobic words were written on our Coming Out Doors, and as a community we handled this situation well. Descriptive emails were sent out explaining what had happened and why these messages were not acceptable, multiple meetings were held by various organizations on campus to discuss the incident, blue shirts were worn for a day to show support for the LGBTQ community, posters of love and support were created and hung around the campus, pledges were taken against hate, and little gay pride flags were lined up along the sidewalks on the quad.
Colgate made it known to our campus that these hateful actions against our brothers and sisters who identify with the LGBTQ community were not acceptable and wouldn’t be tolerated. We spoke out and in the process we came together as a community. But what if a racist incident of the same caliber had occurred; could Colgate have provided the same response and displayed the same amount of support? Our history tells us no, but as a proud member and believer of the Colgate community, my faith says yes.
I have come to appreciate what Colgate is capable of doing. This institution can provide us a top-notch education, teach us to think critically for ourselves, introduce us to people who can become friends for life, provide us the opportunity to study abroad, and, most importantly, challenge us to think about who we are and who we want to become after we leave. This institution is nothing less than great. However, as minority students at Colgate, we have encountered racialized microaggressions, experienced a sense of alienation, a loss of community and at times sheer frustration from not being respected by all of the white community on campus. Though we are respected by some of the white community, we are aware there are individuals on this campus who don’t believe we should be here.
When I was an underclassman, I looked to Colgate’s administration to correct these issues. As I’ve grown and matured, I realize that true and effective change cannot always come from the top. We as a student body must be willing to effect the change. We have to accept the responsibility of calling out hostile behavior of fellow students. We have to do the things that are sometimes hard, but necessary, to make our campus and community better. As students of color, we are at Colgate because we have earned the right as much as any others to be here. And with that right comes the responsibility to help this university become even better. We know Colgate is among the United States’ top institutions, that is why we are here. Yet even the best can get better and it is incumbent on us to wake up every day determined to do better…determined to make our school, Colgate, better.
Yes, this institution struggles with issues of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia and other forms of discrimination. And there are people within the faculty and administration who work hard every day to try to improve the situation of all students through education and the implementation of rules and policies. And there are institutions within Colgate that can offer support to these students such as the Office of Equity and Diversity, the ALANA Multicultural Center and The Center for Women’s Studies.
But what can we, as students, do? To ignore the obvious or become resentful is not wise when we have better choices. We can choose to be better. We can choose to join campus organizations and become active members of student organizations such as The Black Student Union, Sisters of the Round Table, Brothers, DoRAK, Advocates, or CSA. These organizations work to uplift students and support greater causes on campus. Apathy and resentment can no longer be options for us.
Dr. King was a man of dignity, honor and respect. He was a man who understood his surroundings and knew the country he loved needed changing. He spoke up for people who didn’t have a voice and spoke up for righteousness. He marched for justice; knowing he would encounter opposition along the way. The more he challenged the malicious power structure of America, the more he knew he was putting his life on the line. And he didn’t just stand up for his own community. He did his best to stand up for every community that had fallen victim to the injustices of our society. Dr. King never did it for money, power or fame. He did it for the sake of humanity. And at the end of the day, as humans, all we really have is our humanity.
When it’s our time to leave this Earth, we will ultimately be judged, not by the amount of money we made, not by the amount of power we held, and not by the amount of material things we acquired, but by the respect we showed for one another, the people we touched and the lives we helped changed for the better. We are all in this together, and when we choose not to stand up for one of our brothers or sisters, we all lose. As the great Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stated, “In the end, we will not remember the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends”. But the comfort of our silence is a luxury we cannot afford. We are better than that. Justice demands we speak up. Colgate is our launching pad. What we do here does matter. It speaks to the community we are bound to create once we leave here. We have to do better.
This past semester I studied abroad in Venice, Italy, and during my return home I had a near-death experience. One of the planes I was on lost control and went into a freefall. Though some of you may not consider this a near-death experience, it was near enough for me. Thankfully the plane regained control and landed safely, and as I waited to board another flight, I had time to think about what had occurred. Questions kept rushing though my head. What if my life would have ended in that moment, what would I be remembered for? Would anyone outside of my family miss me or appreciate the life that I lived? Am I doing my life’s work to the best of my ability? Am I even doing my life’s work? And would it have mattered that I lived? When I couldn’t think of an immediate answer to that last question, I realized I wasn’t doing enough. I realized I wasn’t keeping my promise and being the best I can be each and every day. And if I was doing my best, then I needed to figure out a way to do better.
The thing about doing better is it’s not easy. It’s not easy being mindful of others. It’s not easy speaking out against injustices. It’s not easy putting others before yourself. These things aren’t easy but they are necessary. Doing better takes time and effort, patience and sacrifice. It can mean different things to different people but ultimately it means living to a higher standard even if you feel you shouldn’t have to. It may seem unfair at first, but at the end of the day it’s worth it. And as of now, the world still needs people to live to a higher standard. We can’t all be Nelson Mandela who spent over 27 years in prison for a just cause. Nor can we all be Dr. King who was willing to die for justice and freedom. But we can be everyday, ordinary people who wake up daily making an effort to make a difference. Colgate is just one stop in life. When it’s our time to move on, who will we decide to become and how do we not just resolve to do better but actually take action every day – to make our world a better place not just for ourselves but for every human being?
Now is not the time to become complacent because you think you’ve done enough. Now is not the time to become apathetic because you think someone else will do the work for you. Now is not the time to become insensitive to the problems of others because you never had to worry about them. No, now is not the time.
Now is the time to speak up and speak out. Now is the time to reach out and lend a helping hand to those in need. Now is the time to self-reflect, to become aware of yourself and to think critically of your decisions and actions. Now is the time to judge people based upon the content of their character and not the color of their skin, their sex or economic status. Now is the time to do better.