Jan. 16, 2023

Dear Students and Colleagues,

Today we honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s leadership in the centuries-old, ongoing fight for racial and economic justice in the United States. I frequently think about our country’s struggles and often-interrupted progress toward realizing the ideals of our founding documents, but it is on specific days of recognition like today that those thoughts become more intentional and contemplative.

This year’s reflections about Martin Luther King, Jr. Day were sparked by a colleague who recently shared with me a fact that revealed a skewed sense of time in my understanding of history. Some of you may have seen it making the rounds in social media — that Anne Frank, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Barbara Walters would have been the same age today had they not been murdered (Frank 1929-1945; King 1929-1968) or died of natural causes (Walters, 1929-2022) when they did. For me, Walters’ long life in comparison to Anne Frank’s and Reverend King’s makes the Holocaust and the Civil Rights Era feel closer, more touchable, somehow. I am grateful for this shock of historical awareness, to feel more connected through this bridging of time to the lives, struggles, and courage of individuals now famous for what they gave to the world in some of its bleakest moments.

Connecting on a more personal level with larger-than-life heroes of history humanizes them and challenges me. For example, Dr. King was assassinated two and a half months before his 39th birthday. The fact that I have already lived nearly 13 years longer than the time he had to make his voice heard around the world certainly presses me to assess what I have done to advance the causes of racial and social justice, and it challenges me to do more. Surely, the life of the man we celebrate today challenges each of us to dream larger and do more to walk the talk of valuing diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility.

But while the legacy of Dr. King should challenge us, we can and should work simultaneously to humanize him — to see him as a contemporary of other famous familiars, to imagine who he could be and what he may have achieved had his fight for racial and economic justice not been found too radical, too threatening. It humanizes Dr. King to think of him as we are — not as more than we are. He was a man, a husband, a father, a preacher, capable of being great and small, as are we all. Shortly before she died, his daughter Yolanda spoke at his tomb, saying, “He was such a kid. He taught me how to swim when I was 4 and how to ride a bike. So, when I think of Martin Luther King, I think of laughter. I think of the play and the fun.” I find it helpful to bring together these ideas about challenging ourselves and humanizing others. James Loewen (1995) urged a similar pairing, I think, when he wrote of our responsibility to resist what he called heroification — the tendency to think of great leaders as perfect, as so far removed from what we can accomplish that we do not see ourselves as capable of or responsible for affecting change.

We have work to do, at CSUCI and beyond, to learn, speak, and act in service to the goal of a better, more just world for everyone. As a public university, we have a special responsibility to do this work. It is our charge and public trust to generate knowledge, to teach, and to serve — becoming better in all of these things because we think, study, and experience the world differently, and because higher education is a place where we are expected to understand that disagreement and mistake-making are essential to growth.

Unfortunately, a healthy relationship with argumentation and mistake-making can be hard to achieve. For some of us, for example, it is easier to allow others to make mistakes and to learn from them than to do so ourselves. For others, the reverse may be true. Let’s work on finding that balance together. We need to be no more and no less kind to ourselves as to others. The world needs us to get this right, and I worry about that, to be honest. I hope that we at CSUCI, a collection of some of the most passionate, intelligent, and dedicated people I know, can figure out how to do the hard work of admitting and accepting mistakes, asking for and granting forgiveness when necessary, and learning together by sharpening our ideas through the collegial clash of a well-reasoned argument — all of which are especially important at this particular moment in time.

I know how much I’m asking during our campus’s greatest enrollment challenge ever faced. I ask it anyway. Difficult times are ahead for our University and how each of us navigates them, including me and each member of my leadership team, will matter. We can choose the values that guide us. Let us be gracious at the same time that we are demanding, courageous, and stubbornly insistent on making DEIA progress as we navigate the challenges ahead. Let’s not fear mistakes and failure but expect them and work with them to keep moving forward in more informed ways.

About Reverend King, Marian Wright Edelman said, “He introduced me to the idea of taking one step, even if you can’t see the whole stairway when you start. I think because of that, I have a much greater capacity to accept failure and move on.” King himself spoke similarly in a long-lost audio recording of one of his speeches, discovered in 2014 by an intern at the New York State Museum. It was from September 12, 1962, at a dinner celebrating the soon-to-be 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863. I am inspired by the hope and faith in the future that he spoke, knowing that the path would be hard.

We must all maintain faith in the future and believe that the American dream can and will become a reality. This is my faith. I know that dark days still lie ahead. Gigantic mountains of opposition will still stand before us. We will encounter new setbacks, and some will still have to suffer persecution. … There is something in this universe which justifies Carlisle in saying, “No lie can live forever.” And there is something in this universe which justifies William Cullen Bryant in saying, “Truth crushed to earth will rise again.” And this is the faith that will carry us on. And with this faith we will be able to adjourn the councils of despair and bring new light into the dark chambers of pessimism. This is the faith that will help us solve the problem. We have a long, long way to go before it is solved. But all of us can at least think of the fact that we have made some strides.

Our challenges ahead are daunting, and we cannot yet see the whole stairway. I remain humbled and honored to lead our next steps. 

Richard Yao, Ph.D.


Address to the New York State Civil War Centennial Commission. (n.d.). New York State Museum. Retrieved from http://www.nysm.nysed.gov/mlk-1962-address

Hupfl, A. (2014, Jan. 20). Listen to newly discovered 1962 MLK, Jr. speech. USA Today. Retrieved from https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/01/20/found-martin-luther-king-jr-speech/4663937/

Loewen, J. (1995). Lies my teacher told me: Everything your American history textbook got wrong. The New Press.

Simon, R. (2007, May 22). Yolanda King at her father’s tomb. Politico. Retrieved from https://www.politico.com/story/2007/05/yolanda-king-at-her-fathers-tomb-004125

Take the first step in faith. (2019, April 18). Quote Investigator. https://quoteinvestigator.com/2019/04/18/staircase/

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