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Remarks from Prof. Mayer on MLK, Jr. Day

Remarks at Martin Luther King Day Rally

First Presbyterian Church, Durham, North Carolina

January 16, 2017

Frederick W. Mayer


We gather here today in ritual remembrance of a great American, not just as a tribute to what he, and so many others, together, accomplished in that great chapter of the American story, but also as a reminder of our unfinished business.

For those of us old enough to remember—I grew up in King’s Atlanta of the 1960s, (in what is now John Lewis’s district)—much in this moment echoes that time.

Not since then have we, the American people, between so divided, so polarized (in the term of the day). We are divided by partisan identity and political ideology, by race and by gender, divided rural and urban, South vs. North, boomers vs. millennials. We live in real or metaphorical gated communities, get our news from separate media verses, practically inhabit parallel realities.

And the tenor of our politics is increasingly toxic. Those with whom we have differences are not just misinformed, they are malevolent. Politicians actually call each other names (particularly one politician-in-chief) and impugn not just their opponents’ ideas but their motives and integrity. Politics has become a blood sport in which compromise is weakness, in which the goal is not simply to prevail but to delegitimize the other.

This is dangerous. Democracy fails when we stop seeing that we are all in this together, stop trusting each other and our political institutions, stop believing that we can work together to find our way forward.

It is tempting to simply complain, to indulge our outrage at the latest tweet, perhaps the slander of John Lewis. (I know I succumb to that temptation a lot.) But complaining is not enough, as President Obama so eloquently argued in his farewell address. Democracy is hard work, and it’s not just the job of presidents, or governors, or legislators, it is our job, those of us who hold what the president (for four more days at least!) called “the most important office in a democracy: citizen.”

So it’s time for us all to go to work, as citizens, as Martin Luther King Jr. and all who marched with him did two generations ago. It’s time to show up, to speak up, to bear witness (as so many in this community did at the board of elections) time to pay attention, to get informed, to support good journalism, to organize, and to stay focused, it is time to engage.

I have the great privilege to head a center at Duke dedicated to engaging the next generation in politics. It is, at its heart, education for citizenship. How to stay informed, how to engage in civil political discourse, how to put ourselves in the shoes of others, how to make a difference. We tell them that what they see in today’s politics is not normal, it must not be normal, and that the task in not simply to engage in the politics that is, but to pursue the politics that could be.

And as we engage we confront the question that King confronted: Do we fight fire with fire? (Nasty tweet with clever tweet?) We know King’s answer: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.” he said. “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Love sounds Pollyannaish, but it’s surprisingly practical. After the NCAA national championship game, Dabo Swinney, the coach of Clemson was asked how his team beat the heavily favored Alabama Crimson Tide. I expected the usual coachspeak: “We just wanted it more.” But what he said was “Love. I told them at halftime that the difference in the game is love. We’re going to win it because we love each other.”

If America is to “win,” we need to love each other again. We need to remember that people are not deplorable, even if sometimes their ideas and actions are.  We need to get outside our bubbles, talk to each other, hear each others’ stories, and allow ourselves, in Lincoln’s words, to be “touched by the better angels of our nature.”

We heard the phrase “Make America Great Again” a lot in the last campaign, a slogan that tapped into a great dissatisfaction and longing in America.

We should aspire to be great, but perhaps it would be wise, as we report to our work as citizens, to frame our task in the words of the poet Langston Hughes:


Let America be America again.

Let it be the dream it used to be.


O, let America be America again–

The land that never has been yet–

And yet must be



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