“Wherever you go, hold up the values of dignity, respect and goodwill for all people,” said Martin Luther King III as he addressed graduates and their families for Senior Convocation yesterday afternoon in Schoellkopf Stadium to a mixed reaction. He quoted and channeled the civil rights message of his father, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. regarding war, inequality and anti-racism.
King’s speech included many examples drawn from current political debates such as education and immigration, which he used to illustrate his point that Cornell graduates should play an active role in shaping American society. He advised students to be “thermostats” rather than “thermometers,” meaning that they should regulate and change history rather than record and watch it.
“I urge you to get involved in politics,” he said, stressing the need to take action to improve areas such as education, employment and childcare opportunities and protecting the environment.
Currently CEO and President of the King Center, King continues to perpetuate his father’s beliefs and teachings of civil rights and nonviolent conflict resolution. Working in both public service and humanitarian causes, King has served as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and was an elected commissioner of Fulton County, Ga., representing over 700,000 residents from 1987-1993.
Speaking to the media before Convocation, King explained that the goal of his speech was, “to encourage students to be socially responsible.”
According to King, college tuition and fees in the U.S. have increased eight-fold since 1970, leading him to suggest that, “America must do a better job of making education affordable and accessible.” He urged graduates not to “take your education for granted,” since “only one percent of the people on earth have a college degree.”
Of the issues currently being discussed in the news and by Congress, King spoke of immigration, gender equality, education, the disenfranchisement of former felons and the war in Iraq. King expressed his belief that the majority of immigrants are hardworking, upright people, and said that this fact should be taken into account in legislation.
Gender inequality still exists in the United States according to King. He gave statistics that women comprise 51.1 percent of the U.S. population, yet only occupy 14.8 percent of the seats in Congress.
Stressing the importance of education, King said that it will affect national security and is also important to stay competitive with other nations. The practice of not allowing former felons to vote in 14 states should be ended, according to King, who believes they should have equal voting rights once they have served their time and paid their debt to society.
Arguing against the war in Iraq, King quoted his father and said, “Wars are poor chisels for carving out peaceful tomorrows.”
King then instructed the graduates to “come forward” and “rise up.”
“Come forward for inclusiveness … and to promote sisterhood and brotherhood of all humankind.” He then added, “Rise up now to light the way to a better future, to take a courageous stand against racism and to use your economic power to support a culture of nonviolence.”
He closed by talking about how to make critical decisions.
“The ultimate judge of a human being is how that person makes decisions not in times of comfort and convenience, but in times of challenge and controversy.” Conscience must be the guide to seeing if a position is right, he said, instead of asking, “Is a position safe, politic or popular.”
Before King spoke, Senior Class President Michael Zuckerman ’06 shared some thoughts with his classmates. He told of famous alumni and changes at Cornell including a change in tuition cost, which was $30 in 1869.
“We are a generation accused of apathy, sometimes called ‘the lazy generation’,” Zuckerman said. He then countered this accusation by pointing out that Cornell responded to Hurricane Katrina with Big Red Relief charity concerts and housing college students from New Orleans.
The senior class presented a check for $57,384 as a gift to Cornell University.
“[King’s speech] was sort of a call to engagement to go out and make a difference for other people and not just ourselves,” said Noah Van Gilder ’06.
Thomas Brown ’06 agreed, saying that he came away from the speech with “a sense of responsibility as opposed to a sense of entitlement.”
However, not everyone in the audience approved of the speaker’s style and choice of topics.
“I just felt like it went around too much on different topics and wasn’t very focused, but I liked the ideas,” said Dani Zylberberg ’06.
Elyssa Koeppel ’06 had a mixed opinion of the speech. “He had some very interesting words, but I felt it was a little too political for the environment.”
“It was very generic,” said Jessica Franko ’06. She added, “He talked about a bunch of different issues and didn’t know his audience ... I learned that I’m supposed to be a thermostat.”
“[King’s] ideas, especially those of equal rights can be translated to any person in any study,” said Student trustee Mao Ye grad who did find that the speech connected to the University and Ezra Cornell’s founding statement “I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.”