The following is the text of an email sent on January 16, 2023.
Today is one of the most profound days we celebrate throughout the year. It is the day we recognize not only the man, but the principles for which the man, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., stood.
Dr. King stood for justice for all. He repeatedly referred to the promise of future days and the essentiality of change, while acknowledging that "Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle." As we look to his past deeds, his present legacy, and his vision for the future we wish to build, change is the coin of the realm. Sam Cooke sang, "A change is gonna' come." Bob Dylan sang, "For the times they are a-changin'." These quotations are from around the time of Dr. King's life and tragic death, but change is ever afoot.
Change has at least two faces to it. There is the famous Heraclitus saying, "No man ever steps into the same river twice." The notion that change happens around us and we must be prepared to adapt is made lyrical in Bob Dylan’s song above. The other aspect of change is the recognition that we are not merely passive recipients of change who must adapt. We can be effectors of change. It is embedded in Sam Cooke's song above. It is embedded in Allen Toussaint's famous song line "Yes, we can can." It is embedded in Dolores Huerta's "Si Se Puede" ("Yes we can!"). It is embedded in the famous World War II poster proclaiming “We can do it!”
Things are enormously better today for so many people than they were decades and centuries ago. That is something we should revel in, and for those who helped to make that happen, something you should take pride in. And yet, we must also recognize that however far we have come, there is still much further to go. Each of us has an obligation to try to make the world a better place—not just for one person, not just for one group, but for all. It is simply the right thing to do.
As moral agents, we have no choice but to aim to do the right thing. We may or may not succeed. But if we are to call ourselves moral agents, we have no option but to try. As moral agents, we can only choose to try to do the right thing. That is inherent in the definition of right.
And so we submit to you that each of us must play our part. That each of us must do something to try to make the world a better place. That each of us must do something to promote justice, equity, and belonging. And in doing so, let the spirit and words of Dr. King offer a launching point. Choose something you can do to help. Be a part of the movement toward change. It can be as small as a public expression of solidarity—wearing a lapel pin, standing up at the right moment at a rally, refusing to stand up at the right moment at a rally, offering a kind word, offering forgiveness, meeting collegially with somebody to exchange ideas and get to a better place of mutual understanding, or one of myriad other acts that are steps toward change. Be the irritant that makes things happen; the sand in the oyster that creates the pearl of change. Some people have the fortitude and courage to stand down a tank at Tiananmen Square, to join a dangerous Freedom Riders bus in Alabama, to devote their lives and careers to promoting greater justice, equity, and diversity. Where between the simple act of sporting a lapel pin in solidarity and risking life and limb you will fall is up to you. But all of us must do something. We cannot not do something.
We know that we may not be successful in everything we try, but we know that we will try. As we honor the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday and recognize the values he stood for and died for, we ask that you follow the spirit of Dr. King and take positive action to make the world a better place—a more just, equitable, and inclusive place—for all.
Jerono P. Rotich, Ph.D.
Associate Dean for Organizational Climate, Inclusion, and Belonging
David B. Allison, Ph.D.