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“Not The End of The Struggle, But An Opening”

Paul Farmer draws record crowd to MLK Day remarks


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Click the video player above to watch Paul Farmer’s speech at BU’s Martin Luther King, Jr., Day celebration.

With a record-breaking crowd before him and President-elect Barack Obama’s inauguration ahead, Paul Farmer celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS’55, Hon.’59) yesterday by describing King as “a work in progress.”

“If Martin Luther King were here with us today in the flesh, as he is in spirit, he would surely be pleased,” said Farmer, the founder of the international aid organization Partners in Health, at Boston University’s annual Martin Luther King, Jr., Day celebration. “But he would not regard this momentous event as the end of the struggle, but as an opening, a space, a chance in which the larger social justice agenda might be pursued.

“He was moving forward in his own moral, intellectual, and political path,” Farmer added. “He was changing, and growing, and learning all the time.”

Farmer was the keynote speaker at this year’s BU event, and he drew a crowd that filled the George Sherman Union’s Metcalf Hall to capacity. The theme of the 2009 celebration was The Drum Major Instinct, based on King’s sermon of the same name. In it, King called on his congregation to find the instinct that makes us “all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade” and use it to be a leader in love, in moral excellence, and in generosity.

Farmer, a medical anthropologist and physician, discussed the conflicting ideals that King examined in his sermon and encouraged his audience to learn from King’s example by using leadership opportunities for growth and discovery instead of for personal gain.

“We can’t forget that he was a controversial figure in his time — even among his supporters, who couldn’t always see where he was going or how the parts of his program fit together,” Farmer said. “The drum major instinct, if not held in check, might have motivated King to accept positions more palatable to the mainstream media. Today we celebrate his courage and his paradoxical relationship to the drum major instinct. Let us all take inspiration from a man who years after winning the Nobel Prize would seek to learn and grow.”

Peter Fu (CAS’09), one of BU’s Martin Luther King, Jr., Scholars, a group of academically gifted students with leadership abilities, acommitment to social justice, and a record of community involvement whoare given full scholarships by the University, read an excerpt from King’s sermon during the program. The program also included a poem by the student slam-poetry group Speak for Yourself and performances by the Inner Strength Gospel Choir, led by choir director Herbert Jones, and the student group Xception Step Team, which performed both traditional and modern versions of African step dances.

At the end of the program, Dean of Students Kenneth Elmore encouraged audience members to leave flowers and notes at the base of the Free at Last sculpture honoring King on Marsh Plaza, as many students, faculty, and staff did on the day after Obama’s election.

“This statue keeps me strong to my values,” said Khadijah Britton (LAW’10, SPH’10), who said that Farmer’s work inspires her own plans for a career in international health. “It’s a lonely road, and each of us individually is not strong enough to do it without sharing in this type of community.”

Others wrote tributes to Obama, expressed their hopes for the future of the country, or left personal notes for King.

“Happy B-Day,” one note read. “Peace.”

Jessica Ullian can be reached at jullian@bu.edu. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky


3 Comments on “Not The End of The Struggle, But An Opening”

  • kcornuelle on 01.20.2009 at 8:42 am


    What a great event — I especially liked the Step performance. Thanks for putting this on, and keeping MLK in our minds.

  • Anonymous on 01.20.2009 at 9:32 am

    The Arts as a Motivating Force

    Both the dancers and the singers were powerful and inspiring – reminding us that the arts can motivate, support, and unite us. Special kudos to Herbert Jones for an equally wonderful musical prelude. One piece in particular resonated with me – “God Bless the Child.”

  • Kellie Markes on 01.20.2009 at 6:28 pm

    can you put video of the gospel choir on here? i especially liked their last song. i would really like to see it again.

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