Penn State laureate reflects on anniversary of King's speech at Penn State

January 07, 2015

Susan Russell, the 2014-15 Penn State Laureate and associate professor of theatre, is taking her "Dignity Tour" to Penn State campuses, high schools and other locations across Pennsylvania, discussing "various languages of creativity and how these languages can bridge communication gaps between diverse cultures and disciplines."

She also is maintaining a website, dignity.psu.edu, where her students post videos, images, music and texts intended to inspire people to thrive for their highest personal and collective goals as global citizens. Russell is reflecting on her laureate experiences through a series of essays. Her fourth essay, reflecting on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech at Penn State, appears below. Previous essays and posts about her travels are archived at http://laureate.psu.edu/Susan_Russell.

“The time is always right to do right.”

            “[…] the basic thing about a man is not his specificity but his fundamental, not the texture of his hair or the color of his skin, but his eternal dignity and worth.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Penn State, Jan. 21, 1965

Fear is an ancient instinct that kept us alive on tundras, deserts and plains, and we had to overcome our fear in order to hunt food and protect our family. Fear and overcoming it are core practices of the human species, and without the balance of adrenaline-charged speed and thought-charged actions our ancient relatives would not have survived. Although time has changed, the components of fear are the same. Fear reminds you that there is not enough to go around. You respond by holding on to whatever you have, fear responds by making everyone else a threat, and you respond by running or fighting. It’s a pretty simple concept. Both fear and overcoming fear are thoughts and actions, and if thoughts of fear begin to dominate your thinking, fear will overcome every aspect of your life. Fear has seeped into our national identity and we need to think about that. Perhaps it found its way in because we have confused individualism with democracy. Perhaps it found its way in because we have confused power with freedom. Perhaps it found its way in because we are so busy running that we forget to think. It’s time to stop, look over our shoulder and see what we are running from. All that takes is changing our mind.

“We need only to open our newspapers and turn on our televisions, and we see with our own eyes that this problem is still with us. We can look around in our communities, wherever we live, and we will see it because no community can boast of clean hands in the area of brotherhood, and so if we will only look, [if] we will only notice the developments in our nation, we will be objective enough and realistic enough and honest enough to know that we have a long, long way to go.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Penn State, Jan. 21, 1965

I didn’t know that Dr. Martin Luther King spoke to 8,000 people at Penn State's Rec Hall on Jan. 21, 1965. There is something simple and clean about not knowing something: either you start looking for information or you don’t. A copy of the speech and some historical facts framed the content of this narrative, but the truth of his speech requires a personal investment. Truth is illusive. Truth can hide behind personal experiences and fears, but those same experiences and fears can turn into possibilities when truth becomes part of the conversation. Truth can offer an opportunity to change, and there is something simple and clean about change: either you do it or you don’t. Change is not that complicated, and in truth, change is what we do. The problems start when we match a new set of actions to a new way of thinking. Changing your mind is personal, but changing your actions is public, and there is nothing more challenging to a culture than the public performance of change.

“Somewhere we must see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of dedicated individuals willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. We must help time, and we must constantly realize that the time is always right to do right.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Penn State, Jan. 21, 1965

The deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner shattered what King called in 1965 the “dangerous optimism” that racial injustice was a thing of the past in our country, and the social media reactions to our own student protests showed how quickly an “illusion wrapped in superficiality” can unravel in a local community. As King’s legacy of nonviolence was acted out in daily student marches, “Die-Ins” and open forums on our University Park campus, and as Penn State President Eric Barron, faculty, administration and staff joined in the call for securing “moral ends through moral means,” the “guardians of the status quo [who] are always on hand with their oxygen tents to keep the old order alive” called for apologies and resignations. Change always meets resistance, and in order to overcome this moment, we must think about the true guardian of racial bias, which is fear. The fear that was acted out on our campus and in our country must be addressed personally and collectively.

Fear is afraid of this action because fear has an enemy in truth. Truth requires us to look at what we are doing and ask ourselves what we are thinking. If Penn State Lives Here, we owe it to King and generations past and present to open the doors and windows in all of the rooms in our house and check for upgrades to the wiring. It makes sense that if the house is wired for 110, it cannot handle a 220 voltage. So, once we get some lights in these rooms, we can begin talking about renovations, and once the renovation plans are drawn, we can make a visit to Home Depot for paint, lumber and PVC pipe. It’s time to renovate. It’s time to stop tearing each other apart and start taking apart the fear that has chased us into these rooms. This is an extraordinary moment for our university, but this moment will never begin unless we are willing to make it personal. Ask yourself right now, “What do I think when I see an African-American woman? What do I think when I see a white man? What do I think about sororities and fraternities? Football? Church? War? Violence against women? Drinking? Voting rights? Immigration? Gun control? Economic equality? Gender equality? Religious equality? Equality in general?

I guarantee you, your thoughts have created a house that has room for me and my family or not, and either your personal actions are a performance of “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal,” or they aren’t. If my freedom is not as important to you as yours, you have a golden opportunity to change your mind. But first, it might be a good idea to see how you got to that place. There is nothing easy about this kind of thinking, but once you look at yourself, you might see that making some changes makes some sense. We owe our children, our grandchildren, our great-grandchildren and the generations to come the time it will take to look at Penn State, our community and our country. I guarantee you it will be worth the effort. Making the American Dream accessible to all will require looking at where the sinkholes are on the road to justice and equality, and maybe once we fill those holes, everyone’s journey will be smoother. We can do this. Dr. King has said we can.

“And I say to you that I still have faith in America, and I still have the faith to believe that we will solve this problem. We have the resources in this nation to solve it and I believe that gradually we are gaining the will to solve it. And that is developing a coalition of conscience on the question of racial injustice, and I would hope that in the days ahead, the forces of goodwill will work even harder in order to go this additional distance in order to make the brotherhood of man a reality all over America.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Penn State, Jan. 21, 1965

All quotes come from Dr. King’s address in 1965. A complete transcript is available at http://blackhistory.psu.edu/assets/timeline/African_American_Chronicles_MLK_1965Speech.pdf.

Last Updated January 14, 2015