Victory Stride Opening Remarks

Victory Stride, an event with several prominent speakers and performers to celebrate 60 years of civil rights progress, was held in the Semel Theater on February 26, 2014. Here are President Pelton's opening remarks.

Thank you so much for inviting me to say a few words at the beginning of this wonderful event, the culmination of a series of powerful events in celebration of Black History Month. What a community we are. It means everything to me that you are all here and all so invested in this work.

So much has happened over the course of my lifetime to change the face of day-to-day life in America. The powerful civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s brought about more change than many of us could have imagined possible, making our United States a stronger and fuller expression of our founders’ democratic ideals than they ever had been before.

I want to celebrate that achievement with you, even as I want to acknowledge that there is still work before us. And I want to acknowledge the power of the place in which we all stand today – and by that I mean the power of Emerson College, and of all schools and colleges – to help get it done. What is a college for if not to develop our individual and collective capacities to think critically, argue powerfully, and go out and make a difference in the world?

The America into which today’s undergraduates were born is very different from that into which Dr. King was born – a world where White businesses created separate accommodations for Black people. A society – supported and legalized by the laws of the land - that forced African-Americans to pay the same or more, for less: a society of separate parks, separate hospitals, separate public transportation, separate water fountains, separate public restrooms, separate libraries, separate hotels, separate restaurants, separate theaters, and separate schools. Even separate cemeteries were common in King’s America – not only in the South, but in the North as well.

In 1954, when the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, that segregated schools were unconstitutional, I was a 4-year-old African-American kid from a working class family in Wichita, Kansas.

I would enter kindergarten in the fall. I lived on a street that divided two distinct neighborhoods: poor African-Americans to the south and middle-class whites to the north.

Many of the homes in the African-American neighborhood were what we called "shotgun" houses: That is, standing in the front yard with the front and back doors opened, you could fire a shotgun clean through them to the backyard. I grew up in a house that lacked indoor plumbing until the year I started kindergarten. Most of the kids in this part of my neighborhood came from families of laborers like my father, who worked as a butcher at a meatpacking plant, and like my mother, who cleaned houses for middle class and rich white families.

My great grandparents made a meager living as sharecroppers near Little Rock, Arkansas where important civil rights battles over the soul and dignity of this nation were waged.

My father and mother attended segregated public schools. After Brown, I had a choice that neither of my parents had growing up: Rather than attend the segregated African-American school several miles to the south, I could attend the white school a short three blocks to the north.

This was an easy decision then: My parents sent me to the white school because of its better facilities and fewer students per classroom. However, during my elementary school years, each school remained de facto segregated, one overwhelmingly white and the other overwhelmingly African-American.

Today, the African-American elementary school no longer exists, and the white school that I attended is predominantly Latino.

My best friend in elementary school was a white boy who lived in the white neighborhood where I went to school. I recall playing football on Thanksgiving in the fresh, new Kansas snow — he was a pretend Johnny Unitas, the Baltimore Colts quarterback, and I was a pretend Lenny Moore, the all-star running back. Though we walked to school together, I was never allowed by his parents to set foot inside his house.

I learned many lessons — not all of which the court probably had in mind when it desegregated the nation’s public schools.

I learned from an early age what it means to be the only dark face in a sea of white faces. I learned what it takes to be the best when the expectations of teachers, students and others lean entirely in another direction. I learned what it means to be the "first" African-American "this" or "that." I learned the burden — imposed, in part, by whites and people of color alike — for me and others like me to represent in our life and our work not only our own private hopes and dreams, but also the hopes and dreams of an entire race of dark-skinned people.

Mostly, I learned always to seek out the best, rather than the worse in humankind. I learned the importance of seeking out work of noble note and finding meaning in my commitment to others.

I learned the true value of a good education and its power – through intellectual inquiry, intercultural understanding, and civic responsibility - to create light and liberty and learning out of darkness and despair.

In the decade following Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, the nation’s colleges and universities were either all white or all black. It was rare to find a predominantly white college with fewer than 97 percent white students. Even as late as 1970, nearly 87 percent of college students in the United States were white; just 9 percent were African American; and the combined total of Asian Americans, Native Americans, and others was less than 3 percent.¹

Today, most colleges and universities across the country have public commitments to diversity among students, staff and faculty. First-rate research has demonstrated the value to all of living and learning in communities that embrace diverse people and diverse ideas.² The Association of American Colleges and Universities—one of the largest umbrella organizations for higher education in the country – has made “Inclusive Excellence” a central part of its agenda for higher education, and Emerson’s own commitment to the work of “Inclusive Excellence” shows us just how powerful it can be.

So what still has to change? That’s the question that everyone who cares about their community and their country has to ask every day, and has to answer. And the answers are complicated: behind persistent achievement gaps and unequal access to college lie income inequality and other inequities that are in turn fueled by the very educational inequities we are working to eradicate.

There is so much more good work to be done. Let us be inspired by the Martin Luther King’s audacious belief “that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits… and…what self-centered men have torn down other-centered men can build up.”

As a nation committed to equality and social justice, our hope is that, out of the rich diversity of human experience, we can create communities of learning, communities made both beautiful and effective by their pluralism, communities of learning that will turn the tide of human want into a sea of joy and light.

Female and male, Christian and Jew, African American, white, Latino, Native American, Muslim and Asian, gay and straight, we must find what binds us all together in common hope and need, not what divides us. We may or may not all come to love one another, but to be part of the best of this place, we must have the moral courage to respect one another.

For history instructs us that this nation when it meets its challenges head on with honesty, integrity and a commitment to doing what is right that we will come together again, we will work together again, we will pray together again, we will hope together again, we will reach the other side together and we will stand united as one nation with the hope to set the table for all to enjoy life’s bounty and where our nation’s motto – e pluribus unum – the one out of the many – may become a living creed.

This is the great American dream.

Not the kind of dream that is available only to those privileged by history or family income. Not the kind of dream that is built on narrow self-interest, but the kind of dream which will swing open wide the doors of opportunity.

This is the democratic vista that Brown v. Topeka Board of Education and the passage of the Civil Rights Bill a decade later offer us – a promise unfulfilled, but a promise nevertheless of a compelling vision of what we could be if we were truly open to living out in word and deed our very best selves.

Thank you.

¹ Carol Schneider, Higher Education and the Contradictions of American Pluralism (Association of American Colleges and Universities White Paper: Washington, D.C.,1995), xi.

² See William G. Bowen and Derek Bok, The Shape of the River (Princeton UP, 2000).