Speakers at the UH Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration honored the memory of King and the civil rights movement and asked the UH community to continue change.
President and Chancellor Renu Khator gave the opening remarks for the Wednesday event and reminded guests about the extraordinary feats that King endured in the times of segregation in the United States. Khator also honored the lives of Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, who she said also sacrificed much to make great change.
“Three men, three fighters for justice and equality whose teachings and actions have intertwined themselves into one common narrative of personal sacrifice, commitment to a cause and the conviction that an individual can indeed move mountains,” Khator said.
Jarvis Hollingsworth, chairman of the UH System Board of Regents, also addressed the buzzing University Center Theater. Hollingsworth said that King, who would have turned 85 this month, was someone everyone can learn from.
“Be inspired by Dr. King,” Hollingsworth said. “Go out, do good works, help your fellow man and woman and make sure, as he did, make sure this city, this state, this nation and this world are a better place for those who will follow you.”
A short video presentation remembering the 1964 Civil Rights movement and a passionate dance performance by Stacy J and Unified Praise Dance Co. set the stage for the powerful words that were to come from the celebration’s keynote speaker, Gene Locke.
Locke, who graduated with a political science degree from UH in 1969, didn’t just speak about King and his part in the movement toward racial equality in this country. Instead, he called for people to recognize what he called the “ugly truth” about how the U.S. got to where it is today.
“Yes, I believe there are lessons from the past that we can learn,” Locke said. “Many of them … can’t be learned from film clips of the civil rights movement. It can’t be learned from newspaper clippings from that time. We need to dissect the past.”
Locke said the problem today lies in the last half of the story about how the fight for civil rights continues to go untold.
“What really gets me going every year during MLK, is that people routinely run out the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, stop it there and that’s it. What about King in ‘65, ‘66, ‘67 and ‘68? They aren’t talking about his campaign against poverty, because that points out there are poor people in this country, and there is something wrong,” he said. “They don’t want to talk about the fact that he was shot down in Memphis while helping garbage workers. They just want to stop the discussion right there. That’s intellectually dishonest.”
As Locke continued, the audience, once silent, began to voice their agreement with outbursts of cheers and applause.
“There are some great things that came out of the civil rights movement, but they are only great because there are many ugly things that fueled it,” Locke said. “You can’t have one without the other. But it’s OK; we are big boys and girls. We are Americans. We can talk about that and move on. … It’s over, and it’s done. But we’ve got to at least acknowledge that it happened.”
Locke also addressed UH as a school of promise, calling it “inherently great.” But he didn’t forget to give a little constructive criticism.
“Who cares what the folks in Austin do? Who cares what the people in College Station do? They are them,” Locke said. “We are us. I am a member of the Cougar family. And when you are a member of a family, you can brag about that family. But you can also criticize.”
Locke asked UH to remember and support its surrounding low-income communities.
“Let us not get so caught up in Tier One that we get tier crazy,” Locke said. “I am absolutely for this school being the brightest start it can possibly be in academic excellence, but you can be Tier One and still bring in minority students and help them be the best they can be. I believe that your university dollars as a Tier One school can go not only to big businesses, but for small businesses, women-owned businesses and minority-owned businesses, too. It’s all about how we identify ourselves. We can identify ourselves as the University of Houston, doing things that A&M and UT are not even dreaming about.”