Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber said Monday that something troubling is happening in America at time when students are speaking up for social justice. Critics of the student protests are invoking Martin Luther King, Jr.’s name not to praise the student movement, but to disparage it for not acknowledging the progress that has been made, he said.
“That progress does not excuse the injustice that remains,” Eisgruber said. “Nor does it warrant the disparagement of protesters who call attention to that injustice.”
Eisgruber, addressing several hundred people gathered at Richardson Auditorium for the school’s annual King Day celebration, said recent student activism is part of a struggle for genuine equality on college campuses and across the country. The protests are rooted in the Black Lives Matter movement, a response to police officers using lethal force against African Americans without legal justification.
“Our students are rightly outraged, and the nation should be outraged,” Eisgruber said, adding that King believed that occasions for peaceful protest went beyond Selma and Birmingham. Quoting from King’s speech “The Other America”, Eisgruber said despite all the progress that has been made, the country is still struggling for genuine equality, which he said is incomplete and urgent.
“We should care about making our college campuses more inclusive and more fully committed to real mutual understanding and respect, but, even more fundamentally, we should care about making this true for the country,” Eisgruber said. “We should care, as Dr. King urged us to do, about what he called the ‘other America’ — about the America where people are not so fortunate as are we on this campus, about the America where people struggle to find decent jobs, to get health care, to educate their children, to be treated fairly and to live without fear.”
The protests at Princeton, Yale, and other schools are, at their core, about the quest for genuine equality, he said.
“Only by making that struggle our own can we celebrate and honor Dr. King in a way truly worthy of his singular legacy,” he said.
Eisgruber then introduced keynote speaker Wesley Harris, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who spoke about his experiences growing up in Richmond, Va. in the 1940s and 1950s, and how a personal encounter with King shaped his life. Harris, the first African American to receive a doctorate in engineering at Princeton in 1968, also discussed the hurdles and difficulties one faces being a black scholar, and said the experience is often painful.
He recalled Richmond’s Monument Avenue, lined with statues memorializing Confederate leaders of the Civil War, and noted he was not allowed there as a black boy. Attending an all-black high school, Harris said he excelled at science and physics. He recalled King’s 1958 visit to Richmond. Harris’ science teacher, Eloise Bowles Washington, approached the civil rights leader about the possibility of Harris attending the University of Virginia. Harris recalled that King warned of dangers to a young black man attending the university at that time, and pressed the teacher on why Harris should enroll.
“He will prove that scholarship by, about, and for black Americans is possible. This is the fundamental challenge of our generation,” Harris quoted his teacher as answering.
Among the many lessons that Harris took from King was that his “ideas, vision and mission” challenged black people to move forward.
“Dr. King transformed the ‘Negro’ to the ‘black’ man and woman,” Harris said. “Fear was replaced by newly self-made courage. Respect for self was followed by heightened self-confidence that black Americans could, if allowed, add unqualified value to the country.”
Harris talked about the continued challenges in the struggle for racial justice, as well as the literal and figurative destruction of black people today, sharing his observations of the country and personal experiences as a professor. He said he ultimately hoped his remarks would make the audience think and act differently about race in America.
The ceremony also included the presentation of the Martin Luther King Day Journey Award for Special Achievement, which recognizes efforts to continue the journey to achieve King’s vision. The award was given to the student leaders of the Princeton Hidden Minority Council, which was established in 2013 to support, advocate for and share the stories of lower-income and first-generation college students at Princeton.
The celebration opened and concluded with music from the Trenton Central High School Inspirational Choir. Members of the audience were so moved by the songs that many stood up, singing and swaying with the student singers.