This post includes Head of Upper School Bill Pruden’s remarks at today’s Upper School assembly honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – courtesy upenn.edu
Good morning. In advance of Monday’s holiday, we are here today to honor the life and legacy of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I know that to many of you he is just another in the collection of dead people whose long ago actions make up history. But he was and is so much more. Indeed, for us at Ravenscroft in 2013, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life serves as a beacon for what we are trying to do, for his efforts offer an unparalleled example of leadership, but leadership that was in fact dedicated to ensuring real opportunities for civic engagement and the exercise of the rights and responsibilities central to the unique democratic system in which we live.
As a historian, I have studied King’s life and as a teacher I have shared the lessons it offers, but my interest is not simply academic. Rather, I am a member of the generation that he impacted directly. His efforts changed my world and his example and his quest for social justice influenced the path I chose. As a result, I want today to share a little bit of my story, because, as Emerson, once said, “There is properly no history, only biography,” and as insignificant, in most ways, as my own biography is, as I stand before you today preparing to oversee my final semester as Upper School Head, my story, one that unfolded in the shadow of King’s efforts, not only illuminates some of his legacy, but also helps explain my excitement at the opportunity to encourage and develop a new generation of “citizens,” with all that title connotes. I will be honest with you, my story is different from what you heard last week in this arena, but nevertheless, I ask you to bear with me for a few moments as I delve into my own past in the hope of influencing your future.
From a purely chronological standpoint, my early life paralleled the civil rights movement that King led while also reflecting the very real divide that was America in the mid-1950s through the 1960s, the world that the Kerner Commission characterized in 1968 as a “nation … moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” I grew up in what was, for its time, a quintessential commuter suburb in northern New Jersey, less than twenty miles outside New York City. All white and predominantly Protestant, I did have a few Catholic friends, but I was only aware of it because they had to go to catechism every Thursday afternoon—an activity that intruded upon our daily afternoon pick-up games — and because if we had a sleepover on Friday nights, we could never eat meat—although that had its upside since it was how I was first introduced to pizza—plain, sometimes with extra cheese.
Growing up my greatest love was sports, but beyond the games, sports did much to make me aware of the broader world in which I lived. The path-breaking NCAA basketball victory of Texas Western’s all black starting five in 1966, and the courageous acts of protest by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics, did as much to heighten my awareness of the racial tensions that characterized 1960s America as any of the standard news reports of the era. Too, Sandy Koufax’s decision to sit out the opening game of the 1965 World Series in observance of Yom Kippur did much to further my understanding of Judaism. These snippets gave me some awareness of the broader, more diverse world that lay beyond my suburban enclave. But going away to a boarding school, a little north of Boston, opened my eyes to a very different world. Indeed, it was a transformative experience. Suddenly I, whose lilywhite Christian community of Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey, had been rocked when the first Jewish families moved in late in my elementary school career, found myself in a freshmen class of about 130 students in a high school of over 800 males from all over the nation and the world. Coming from a wide range of races, religions, ethnic, and socio-economic backgrounds, we were united only in our desire for a high quality education and in our effort to survive challenges, in most cases unlike anything we had ever before experienced. And yet, it brought home a central truth: that despite coming from a diverse set of backgrounds, our shared pursuit of the same goals and the same dreams highlighted our common ground, making our similarities far more important than our differences. As a community we functioned far better when we focused on those commonalities rather than on our differences. Of course on the national scene things were happening that showed that such sentiments did not always translate smoothly.
In fact, the election in 1968 of Richard Nixon as President seemed to promise a rollback of the advances that had been achieved earlier in the decade by the King-led civil rights movement. Yet my new school offered stark evidence of the changing American landscape when in the spring of 1969, we elected 3 African-American students as our class presidents for the coming year, an act that earned national attention, including an article in The New York Times. Calling Andover “one of the most prestigious of the elite prep schools” they quoted my class president, Ed McPherson, who said “The fact that they would elect us shows how the old traditional values are breaking down around here.” He added, “Young whites are beginning to answer questions about the system and the roles assigned to blacks that their parents wouldn’t even ask.” Perhaps reflective of being in the middle of it, I saw this event less as history than as the election of a friend, one of my track teammates.
Soon afterwards I received another lesson in my personal, ongoing real world education, one that illustrated clearly what my classmate had said about our generation answering questions that our parents wouldn’t even ask. I spent the summers of my high school years working at a private tennis club on Martha’s Vineyard Island. Ironically, given what was to transpire, the Vineyard was and remains today an exclusive summer retreat for some of the nation’s African-American elite, but when a member of the club I was working at sought — unsuccessfully — to sponsor a black for membership I quickly became aware of the divide that had long characterized race relations on the Vineyard. In fact, I received a preview earlier, before things reached the really divisive stage, when on a hot Saturday morning, a young black man about my age came wandering into the club and said he was looking for his parents who, like mine, were inside the clubhouse at an area homeowner’s meeting. We got talking and I soon learned that he played tennis regularly on the town’s public courts and so as the homeowners’ meeting broke up and our parents emerged, I invited him to come back that afternoon to play, and a few hours later Les Hailing, Jr., and I played tennis in a match that seemed no different from any of the hundreds of others that I had played on those sun baked clay courts. Across the net from me stood a person very much like me, a student at a boarding school, the son of a dentist (indeed, we learned later that our fathers had been lab partners in a summer course they had taken years before), a tennis player. Yes, there were differences. My backhand and serve were stronger, but his cross court forehand kept me constantly on the run. And indeed, reflective of the leveling effect of sports, those things — and not the color of our skin — were what mattered as we proceeded to play under the mid-day sun, enjoying the camaraderie and competition that we shared.
A day or two later I was told that my opponent was probably the first black to ever play on the club’s courts, and before I knew it that afternoon became a symbol and the place where I had learned to play tennis became a battleground, as well as a classroom for lessons about civil rights — racial and religious — about my parents and their friends, about the innocence of children and the cowardice of adults, about where one will take a stand, and when talk is cheap. The details are not uninteresting, but a bit cumbersome for this venue. Suffice it to say that the lessons were at once life changing and life affirming. The experience changed my views about many things relating to character, success, opportunity, and equality. The whole episode, one that culminated in my December 1971 appearance in the Massachusetts District Court as the lead witness for the state in a suit brought by the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination against the Tennis Club and its executive board, a body which included my mother, the club treasurer, offered eye opening lessons about the challenges that remained in the quest for equality.
These experiences, coupled with my having worked for over two months in the spring of 1971 as an intern in the Washington office of United States Senator Edmund S. Muskie, then the frontrunner for the 1972 Democratic Presidential nomination, an experience that further fueled my dreams of a career in public service, specifically elective office, left me heading to college determined to pursue a career that would allow me to address the issues that remained all too real in post-Martin Luther King America.
Memorial in Washington, D.C. – courtesy nps.gov
As I said, initially I intended to go into politics, and while I worked on a ground-breaking campaign for one of the first women ever elected to the New Jersey State Senate, and then served as her legislative assistant, the unsuccessful candidacies for local office I undertook while in college—the general consensus within my family is that my mother didn’t even vote for me one time — left me questioning my electability and looking for alternative avenues for service and public engagement. The law soon beckoned, for while Dr. King’s heroic effort embodied leadership of a distinctive kind, the legal efforts of people like Thurgood Marshall and Earl Warren were no less an inspiration, and so it was with that 35 years ago this month, I found myself anxiously checking my mailbox, awaiting the answers from yet another application process, this time to law school—sorry seniors, the end is not necessarily near.
Happily, I was admitted to law school, but before too long I came to the realization that not only did I find the history of the law more interesting then the law itself, but more importantly, that the legal underpinnings so crucial to helping the United States ultimately become the color blind society promised by Thomas Jefferson’s declaration that all men are created equal were, in fact, in place, thanks in no small part to the efforts of many, including Martin Luther King, Jr. But while the laws were on the books, there remained a serious need to address the attitudes that characterized a still evolving nation in its quest for social justice. It seemed to me that education was the key to taking that next step, and so, desiring to work with young people to achieve those goals, I turned to teaching.
Looking back, it was undoubtedly the right choice, and as a result, except for a brief return to graduate school and a stint as a legislative assistant to a congressman on Capitol Hill in Washington, I have spent the past 30 plus years in education. Over that time I have seen real progress in the areas that first engaged my public consciousness, but I have also been reminded that it is an ongoing process, one that cannot afford to become stagnant and which is, at least in the political context, wholly dependent on the engagement of the people it serves, for the distinctive system under which we operate, one best described by the cinematic man of the hour, Abraham Lincoln, as a “government of the people, by the people, [and] for the people,” is dependent upon “we the people” from whom its authority and legitimacy stems. Whether it is the holder of high office or the solitary voters who turn out every year to have their say, our system is a singularly human endeavor, powered by citizens to serve citizens.
Indeed, over a lifetime studying our political process one of the things that has been most striking is the humanity of those citizens — at all levels. The opportunity to see many public officials in private times has reminded me that while they may too often be defined by their titles or their offices, they are at base, people doing the best they can because they had a commitment to service and believed in something greater than themselves, and yet that commitment had a price. Indeed, on one of the last days of my internship, as Senator Muskie and I posed for the traditional exit photograph, I wished him good luck in his presidential quest while confiding that I, too, wanted to go into politics. Etched in my memory is the weary look that engulfed his face as he murmured softly, “I’d think about that a while first.”
Through immense good fortune, that was only the first of such personal encounters. Writing my college thesis on the failed Muskie presidential campaign, my research led to interviews with over 30 prominent political office holders and support staff, many of whom later served Presidents Carter and Clinton. Luminaries including Senator Gary Hart who came into his office on a holiday to meet with me; future Secretary of State Cyrus Vance who treated me with kindness, candor, and humanity, encouraging my scholarship, adding to my political education, and fostering my commitment to public service; and James Johnson, later a top aide to vice president Mondale patiently spent almost two hours with me on a pair of telephone interviews — one the day after Thanksgiving — discussing his efforts with the Muskie campaign.
Politics is often called a contact sport, and many of the people admitted finding the interviews difficult, forcing them to dredge up painful memories of a disappointing experience, but they were all unfailingly kind and forthcoming — using the sessions as a form of catharsis, while also encouraging my interest in public affairs. Future Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, a Muskie protégé, sat down with me in his brother’s kitchen in Maine, in the midst of a family party on New Year’s Day, 1976, and shared his painful recollections of his time as deputy campaign manager, all the while fending off his brothers who were beseeching him to finish up with “the kid” so he could join them for the annual cribbage competition that was a staple of the family’s holiday gathering. Each encounter served as a testament to the humanity and character that marked their commitments to public service, all the while reinforcing mine.
Happily for me, my thesis was not my only entrée to big time politics. Service on a committee at Andover allowed me to meet the first President Bush, then the Ambassador to the United Nations and a School trustee, whose every question reflected a deep human concern for the institution he had attended and to which he had sent his sons as well, as well as a respect for our opinions. A few years later, I was asked to fill in as a fourth in a doubles match, only to discover that I was playing with Bush’s 1988 opponent, the then Governor of Massachusetts, Michael Dukakis — and his teenage son — an encounter that was totally apolitical, but which left me genuinely impressed with the governor — as a competitor — and a father. Too, his willingness afterwards to talk politics with an eager student was an act of generosity I have never forgotten.
My year and a half stint as a Congressional legislative assistant in Washington left me with similar impressions as my interactions with people I had previously only seen on the news, offered me an immutable sense of their deep seated patriotism and commitment to the public good, as well as their very real humanity.
In the end, I tell you all of this because, while my political dreams and experiences are best seen in the rear view mirror of my life, what I learned and saw can serve as useful reminders of the sometimes forgotten human side of politics, and even more importantly of the commonalities we share in this democracy, a distinctive system in which office and title aside, we are all equal and we all have an opportunity matched by a responsibility to participate and contribute. Too, they inform deeply my belief in the critical importance of an informed, engaged, and active citizenry, as well as my belief that given its importance to our nation’s very survival, it cannot be left to chance. We cannot assume that, as King did in Montgomery almost 60 years ago, leaders will emerge, and yet that emergence reminds us of the fact that for all the marble statuary that now appropriately honors his efforts and his example, Martin Luther King, Jr., like the greatest of our leaders, was at base an individual, a citizen who stepped up, who engaged, who saw beyond himself, serving and leading at a time that it was needed. At the same time, his untimely death left an unfinished agenda, a fact that should serve as both a reminder and a challenge to each of us to do the same — in whatever way we best can — now at a time when it is again, needed.
Civic engagement is a broad concept and certainly it is about more than just politics, but as Martin Luther King Jr.’s own life demonstrated, politics does matter — greatly. Indeed, while King started on the streets of Montgomery and died preparing to march in the streets of Memphis, in between he was a powerful influence in the halls of Congress and in the White House where he played a crucial role in the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. Yet however you define it, what is really important is that you make it a part of your life.
Over 50 years ago, in his Inaugural Address, President Kennedy proclaimed that the torch had been passed to a new generation of Americans. That torch continues to be passed — and you are now that new generation of Americans and so, as we recognize and honor the work of Martin Luther King, Jr., I urge to take it up and honor his legacy by committing yourselves to a life that serves a greater good.