Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Breakfast Remarks

January 21, 2019

Just over 60 years ago, in 1958, a 29-year-old Dr. King struggled to find a venue to speak in Greensboro, North Carolina. For a time, it looked like the event might not take place, and then a remarkable woman stepped in. Her name was Willa Beatrice Player. She was president of Bennett College for women, the first African-American woman ever to lead a four-year fully accredited liberal arts college.

As history tells it, President Player had this to say in extending the invitation: “Bennett College is a liberal arts college where ‘freedom rings,’ so King can speak here.” And on February 11, 1958, he did just that, drawing an overflow crowd to the school’s Annie Merner Pfeiffer Chapel.

What courage! What vision. President Player’s words inspire no less today than they did then—and for me personally, the first African American president of Wellesley College, those words have special meaning/resonance: What we do exists within a moral context. They exhort us to build schools and community where freedom rings.

From his early days, Dr. King also shared this bold vision. Here’s how he put it in the Morehouse College student paper: “We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate.”  

Now it is up to us to carry this vision forward. To insist that everyone deserves a seat at the table, regardless of what they look like, who they love, how they worship, their ability or disability, or where they come from. 

This, of course, includes women—and especially women of color, so long sidelined if not invisible. Race and gender interact in potent and important ways. When we tap into this intersection, great power can be unleashed.

I have seen this power firsthand—in my own life, as well as in the lives of others.

I was nine years old when Shirley Chisholm ran for Congress in my Brooklyn district. My mother took me with her into the voting booth to cast that historic vote. I still recall the jubilation we shared on learning of her victory—that for the first time ever, a black woman would serve in the U.S. Congress.

In that moment, my sense of possibility blasted wide open. Someone who looked like me could aspire to anything. 

Today, Representative Ayanna Pressley occupies Shirley Chisholm’s office, and serves as a beacon for young women of color, as Shirley Chisholm did for me.

And she is not alone; far from it. As I say this, my heart fills. We now have more such beacons than ever, including every woman at this table. All have blasted through false assumptions tied to their identities. All are pointing the way towards a freer, more just world. 

To be sure, we are not there yet. In the words of Dr. King’s widow, Coretta Scott King: “Freedom is never really won, you earn it and win it in every generation.” 

Now, this may sound daunting. But when I think of today’s young activists, I can’t but feel hopeful. Their impatience moves us out of complacency. Their dreams drive us forward. I see such commitment—such passion—to create a better world.

This is how progress happens. A new generation takes up the torch from those who have gone before. And so many have gone before. Even as we look to the future, let us keep them in our minds and hearts.

I think of Bennett College President Willa Player. Her example shines forth across the years to inspire us today. So let us do our part to build schools; let us build communities; and let us build worlds—where freedom rings.