January 25, 2020
President Robert W. Iuliano
Good evening, everyone, and welcome. As Jeffrey mentioned a moment ago, we have a wonderful performance in store for you tonight, featuring a rich tapestry of African American music traditions.
It is a performance that will be heightened not only by the significance of this milestone event—our 40th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration—but also by the talent and the spirit of this gifted group of artists.
Words matter. Whether through the songs of Damien Sneed or the speeches of Dr. King, words have the power to inspire and to influence. So, I simply want to begin by using my words to express my deepest gratitude to our performers here this evening, whose voices will inspire us and lift us up—and ask us to work towards the changes we want to see in our community, in our nation, and in our world.
During a sermon in 1956, Dr. King observed that: “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.”
We have witnessed this struggle unfold since the birth of our nation. It is a struggle, in far too many respects, that we continue to confront today. Racism, poverty, and other societal ills that Dr. King called out—and that he called for everyone in society to name, to resist, and ultimately to overcome.
We come together on evenings like this not only to mark our past but also because we understand it to be a moment of reflection—a moment to assess where we are as a people and the distance we need to travel between our aspirations and our realities.
This evening, then, we have the opportunity to reflect on that distance, and what it is that we need to do to address the ills powerfully articulated by Dr. King. Ills that are so deeply entrenched within our society and that continue to block the path to true justice and equality.
History has shown that this is not easy work. As we think about how to make progress, we have the life of Dr. King as a source for guidance and inspiration. We might also consider the lessons of another champion of the American Civil Rights Movement, the remarkable Georgia Congressman John Lewis, who, in 1963, joined Dr. King in his March on Washington and spoke at the Lincoln Memorial—and whose hand I have had the privilege to shake.
Congressman Lewis tasted the bitter fruits of racism as a young boy growing up in Alabama. Gazing upon signs in local establishments that segregated patrons based on the color of their skin, Lewis would often turn to his parents and grandparents for guidance.
“That’s the way it is,” they’d reply. “Stay out of trouble.”
For much of his youth, Lewis accepted their advice. But his thinking began to shift in 1955, as a 15-year-old, when he first heard of Dr. King and Rosa Parks.
The pair inspired him, as he would later be quoted, to “be bold, brave, courageous and find a way…to get in the way.”
As a college student in Nashville, Lewis got involved in sit-ins and went on to participate in the Freedom Rides that sought to spur systemic change.
He partnered with Dr. King to desegregate places across the South, and he learned from Dr. King what it meant to stand up for what is right. And to lead others with a message, in Dr. King’s words, of “infinite hope.”
At a leadership event for our students last semester, there too I spoke about Lewis and his courage to lead a group of 600 people across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma — Bloody Sunday, an important inflection point in the American story.
In so many of these instances throughout his life, John Lewis quite purposefully “got in the way.” He put himself on the line to bring about change and to confront deeply rooted social, cultural, and political structures.
As we undertake the reflection called for by our gathering tonight, we should think of the example set by Congressman Lewis. It offers important guidance for what it will take for us to build a more just and inclusive future together.
As I have said to my students, this is everyone’s work. It does not belong only to some members of our society. How we think about justice speaks to what we see in ourselves as a country and as a people.
And, so, as we undertake this essential work—right here at home in Gettysburg—to better our College, our community, our schools, our workplaces, and our nation, let us follow the example of King and Parks and Lewis, and so many others throughout our history, who “got in the way” as a means of bringing about necessary change.
When we do so, we will inch ever closer to creating the kind of world Dr. King dreamed we were capable of. A world where every person steps forward for one another, and for what’s right.