Remembering Dr. Silber

September 27th, 2012

1972 poster marking Boston University's Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration.

1972 poster marking Boston University's Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration.

Boston University’s president emeritus John Silber passed away Thursday, September 27, 2012 at the age of 86. Silber served as the University’s president from 1971-1996, and as chancellor from 1996-2003.

One of Dr. Silber’s greatest legacies will be how the University celebrates the life of alumnus Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Boston University is believed to be one of the first universities in America to hold a commemoration and suspend classes to honor Dr. King. Dr. Silber mandated this commemoration 12 years before Dr. King’s national holiday was signed into law, 15 years before it was officially observed, and 29 years before all 50 states recognized the day.

In 1971, on the third anniversary of Dr. King’s passing, the University honored him with a two days of lectures in Hayden Hall (which is now the College of Arts and Sciences’ Tsai Auditorium.)

The next year, Dr. Silber suspended classes for two hours for an University-wide lecture in honor of Dr. King. This lecture was given in Hayden by Dr. Leon Sullivan, the first African-American on General Motors’ Board of Directors. Later that day, Congresswoman and Democratic presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm delivered a lecture as the closing portion of the commemoration. Chisholm was the first African-American and woman to run for the Democratic nomination, the first African-American to ever run for president. Both speakers for the 1972 commemoration were hand picked by Dr. Silber.

Those early commemorations were groundbreaking. Though Dr. King’s legacy was evident in the early 1970s, most institutions were not quick to honor his leadership in the civil rights movement in such a substantial way. Dr. Silber insisted that Boston University be a trailblazer in this sense; that one of the first universities to provide opportunity to all students be one of the first to honor a man whose life’s work was to spread opportunity to all of America.

Today, the Dean of Students office and Howard Thurman Center continue Dr. Silber’s vision of University-wide programming to honor one of our most influential and impactful alumni. Dr. Silber’s recognition and reverence of Dr. King’s legacy will forever give our offices the guidance to celebrate and reflect.

The following is a tribute to Dr. King that Dr. Silber delivered at the first event in 1971:


A Tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr.
By John R. Silber
President, Boston University

Delivered April 5, 1971, at Hayden Hall, Boston University, as a part of a two-day observance commemorating America’s foremost civil-rights leader, who received his Ph.D. from Boston University in 1955.

Dr. Silber's remarks on Dr. King from Boston University's 1971 commemoration.

Dr. Silber's Remarks On Dr. King from Boston University's 1971 commemoration.

A generation of historians has debunked the theory of the great man, the importance of the individual person to the history of a nation or an age. But other historians and the facts of history, obvious to anyone with even a modest knowledge of his own times, prove the opposite. The history of the Weimar Republic and, hence, the recent history of Germany and Europe would have been profoundly different had it not been for the series of assassinations and heart attacks that removed all of their most effective and constructive leaders.

More painful to us as Americans is the recognition that today our nation faces a crisis of political and spiritual leadership through loss by assassination and heart attack of Malcolm X, John F. Kennedy, Whitney Young, and Martin Luther King, Jr. We face the question: Can a nation survive the loss of so many of its finest men? All but the most Pollyanna must acknowledge that the answer to this question is not yet in.

Barring the emergence of new and as yet unrecognized sources of spiritual insight and imagination, of political sagacity and moral force, the pessimist’s answer becomes increasingly persuasive.

The fad of the anti-hero ­­­– that current tendency to fix quickly, if briefly, on a virtual nonentity as the object of public acclaim or to write that nonentity into the leading character of a best seller – should not blind us to the importance of heroes and to the miracle of great men.

To offset the anti-heroic craze, we might do well in designating special days of mourning and memorial services for all those recently fallen—Malcolm X, John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Whitney Young. But if we cannot spare the time to remember and to honor each of them, we do well in selecting Martin Luther King as representative of our loss. For while Malcolm X, John and Robert Kennedy, and Whitney Young fell in early- or mid-career, much of Martin Luther King’s work had been accomplished. Thought cut short, there was a completeness to his life that was denied the others.

Martin Luther King left behind not merely a strategy for social change that is being carried on by his followers, but also a body of philosophical and theological argument establishing the basis for change and the reasons for his strategy. And he bequeathed a dream of the future that would inspire all men.

Between the first and the final attempt on Martin Luther King’s life lay a decade of achievement in defining the moral and religious justification for the cause of courageous and assertive nonviolent resistance. From the day in 1958 when Martin Luther King was almost fatally stabbed while autographing books in a Harlem department store to that day three years ago when he was fatally shot, he wrote, among other things, his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. This document has already found its place, along with the writings of Thomas Jefferson, Thoreau, Plato, and Gandhi, among the normative treatises on the Rights of Man.
In this work Martin Luther King drew upon Jesus, Socrates, Amos, Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, Martin Buber, Paul Tillich, Thomas Jefferson, and the Negro Church to argue in favor of “nonviolent direct action [seeking] to create such a crisis and establish such a creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.”

In that document he set forth the four basic steps in any nonviolent campaign: “(1) Collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive; (2) Negotiation; (3) Self-purification, and (4) Direct action.” In developing the concept of self-purification, Martin Luther King made one of his most original contributions. He prescribed workshops on nonviolence and insisted that those engaged in campaigns of nonviolence ask themselves, “Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?” and “Are you able to endure the ordeals of jail?”

In order to distinguish himself and his followers, who broke laws in a campaign of nonviolence, from those who violate the laws under other circumstances, Martin Luther King wrote:

“I hope you can see the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law as the rabid segregationists would do . This would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do it openly, lovingly (not hatefully as the white mothers did in New Orleans when they were seen on television screaming ‘nigger, nigger, nigger’) and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the very highest respect for the law.”

In this we have a relevant restatement of Socrates’ argument in the Crito, as he expressed his respect for lawlessness by accepting execution while preserving his integrity as the Gadfly of Athens who had aroused the conscience of his community.

The basic position developed by Martin Luther King in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail was reiterated on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the march on Washington on August 28, 1963, when he said:

“We must not allow our creative protests to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to distrust all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny.
“They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone. And as we walk we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, ‘When will you be satisfied?’…
“…We will not be satisfied until justice rolls don like waters and the righteousness like a mighty stream.”

In so speaking, Martin Luther King  spoke not only for the black people; he spoke for all men in the range of his voice or his pen. He spoke for and to the conscience of all mankind.

The moral case of the Negro is devastatingly overwhelming. It shames all fair-minded men. And Martin Luther King, as few men in history, could evoke that shame– first, through laying the moral and spiritual predicates for his indictment, and then by dramatizing the injustices suffered by the black community so grippingly that even the blind could see.

Martin Luther King reached the heights of the Prophet Nathan in his denunciation of King David, when he indicted the American People from his cell in Birmingham:

“I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, ‘Wait.’ But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers a whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an air-tight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertise on television  and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son asking in agonizing pathos: ‘Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?’; when you make a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading ‘white’ and ‘colored’; when your first name becomes ‘John,’ and when your wife and mother are never given the respected title ‘Mrs.’; when you are harried by day and haunted at night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tip-toe stance never quite knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’; then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”

The power of Martin Luther King’s indictment was multiplied by the tactics of nonviolent resistance, for in the program on nonviolence he shattered the moral pretensions of those who would resist the claims of justice. He spoke not just for blacks but for us all in demanding, in the words of Amos, that “justice roll down as waters and righteousness as a mighty stream.” And he knew, as few men have, that moral and spiritual power may exceed mere physical strength. He knew that a man who would be callous and indifferent to a show of physical force that he could easily put down, could be shamed and transformed by a moral indictment lovingly presented.

The futility of trying to correct one wrong by committing another has been pointed out numerous times. The poet Yeats put the argument as follows in his four-line poem, “The Great Day,” written on the eve of the Second World War:
“Hurrah for revolution and more cannon-shot!”

for the cause of courageous and assertive nonviolent resistance. From the day in 1958 when Martin Luther King was almost fatally stabbed while autographing books in a Harlem department store to that day three years ago when he was fatally shot, he wrote, among other things, his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. This document has already found its place, along with the writings of Thomas Jefferson , Thoreau, Plato and Gandhi, among the normative treatises on the Rights of Man. In this work Martin Luther King drew upon Jesus, Socrates, Amos Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, Martin Buber, Paul Tilich, Thomas Jefferson,and the Negro Church to argue in favor of “nonviolent direct action [seeking ]to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.”

In that document he set forth the four basic steps in any nonviolent campaign: “(1) Collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive; (2) Negotiation; (3) Self-purification, and (4) Direct action.” In developing the concept of self-purification, Martin Luther King made one of his most original contributions. He prescribed workshops on nonviolence and insisted that those engaged in campaigns of nonviolence ask themselves, “Are you able to accept blows with retaliating? and “Are you able to endure the ordeals of jail?”

In order to distinguish himself and his followers, who broke laws in a campaign of nonviolence, from those who violate the laws under other circumstances, Martin Luther King wrote:

“I hope you can see the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law as the rabid segregationist would do. This would lead to an anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do it openly, lovingly ( not hatefully as the white mothers did in New Orleans when they were seen on television screaming ‘nigger, nigger, nigger’) and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I want to submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the very highest respect for the law.”

In this we have a relevant restatement of Socrates’ argument in the Crito, as he expressed his respect for lawlessness by accepting the execution while preserving his integrity as the Gadfly of Athens who had aroused the conscience of his community.

A beggar upon horseback lashes a beggar on foot.
Hurrah for the revolution and cannon come again !
The beggars have changed places but the lash goes on.”

And this insight was one of King’s central concerns.

Martin Luther King, clear in his indictment of injustice, advocated non violence as the strategy for its correction, because he knew that unless the oppressor is removed by love and the power of righteousness, the injustices of another — with no moral advantage to the world.

In closing, I am reminded of Yeats’ poem, “In the Memory of Major Robert Gregory,” in which the poet reviewed in imagination his fallen friends and companions. As the faces of some some returned to him in imagination, he wrote:

I am accustomed to their lack of breath…”

But when the face of his special friend appeared, Yeats was shocked that he

“Could share in that discourtesy of death.”

We feel this shock and incongruity about Martin Luther King. Thinking of King we might say with Yeats:

“Some burn damp faggots, others may

consume

The entire combustible world in one small

room

As though dried straw, and if we turn about

The bare chimney is gone black out

Because the work had finished in that flare.”

And with Yeats we ask:

“What made us dream that he could comb
grey hair?”

Do we stop here? Or do we go on to speak of each of the fallen heroes to whom I referred earlier. The last stanza of Yeats’ poem has the answer:

“I had thought, seeing how bitter is that wind

That shakes the shutter, to have brought to mind

All those that manhood tried, or childhood loved

Or boyish intellect approved,

With some appropriate commentary on each;

Until imagination brought

A fitter welcome; but a thought

Of that late death took all my heart for speech.”

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