January 15, 2018

Dear Students, Faculty, and Staff,

Reflecting today on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one cannot help but think about how much our country has changed since his birth in 1929, and how much work still needs to be done to achieve his vision of a nation whose greatness is rooted in peace, justice and equal economic opportunity for all people. 

Dr. King inspired and continues to inspire millions of people across the globe. Countless people have worked over the decades to end segregation, to make American society more just and equitable, and to free it from prejudice and hatred. We still measure our progress towards social justice against the vision he laid out in August 1963 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, in what is known as the “I have a dream” speech.

Dr. King had strong ties to Oberlin College and the City of Oberlin, visiting and speaking here multiple times. His first visit came in 1957, shortly after the success of the bus boycott in Birmingham. Dr. King returned in June 1965, to receive an honorary doctor’s degree and give our Commencement address. He praised Oberlin not just for being a pioneer in educating African Americans and women alongside men but because so many of Oberlin’s students, faculty, alumni, and local residents were playing important roles in the struggle for civil rights.

Dr. King dedicated his life to confronting injustice with non-violent direct action. Education was a crucial element in his philosophy and work. He understood the power of education to provide social and economic uplift, and to create a more just and democratic society. 

In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” written in April 1963, Dr. King outlined the four basic steps in a nonviolent campaign: 

  • collect facts to determine whether injustice exits; 
  • negotiate to try and remove the causes and effects of that injustice; 
  • self-purify to prepare those suffering from the injustice for nonviolent direct action – for example: Are you able to accept being beaten without retaliating? Are you prepared to endure the ordeal of jail? 
  • and, finally, take direct action—sit ins, marches, vigils, picketing.

At a time when there is so much polarization in America and in the world, we should remember those precepts. We must all strive to know the facts, to try and resolve our differences through dialogue, and to take a hard look at ourselves before taking action. No one has a monopoly on the truth. 

Because of the leadership and efforts of Dr. King, his colleagues and so many others, America has come a long way. Their non-violent direct action paved the way for Barack Obama to become president of the United States. But as Dr. King told us time and again, we still have a long, long way to go if we are to have peace, justice and prosperity throughout the world.

Obviously, we in America have yet to achieve many of the goals Dr. King articulated. De facto racial segregation still exists in America. All our citizens do not have equal educational and economic opportunities. There is a widening gap between the rich and poor. But I believe that through education, hard work, faith, and action we can and will fulfill Dr. King’s dream. By working together we can, as Dr. King said in Finney Chapel on an October afternoon in 1964, “Bring into being that bright day when the American dream is a reality.”

Carmen Twillie Ambar
President