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Kennedy '77 discusses life, legacy of Martin Luther King

Despite exams, January 19 – Martin Luther King Day – did not pass unnoticed.

To honor King's legacy, the University held a program in Alexander Hall. The keynote speaker was University trustee and current Harvard University Law school professor Randall Kennedy '77.


In a brief 15-minute speech, Kennedy hailed King for playing a "singular role in a social movement which enriched our democracy."

Kennedy opened the speech by rhetorically asking, "Why celebrate Martin Luther King Day?" He warned that "unreflected celebrations" quickly turn into weary "ritual." Many Americans today rarely honor past heroes like Christopher Columbus or George Washington on their holidays, he said.

"It is a mistake to assume that we should celebrate Martin Luther King Day," he added.

In order to justify the importance of the holiday, Kennedy outlined King's contributions to American democracy. He discussed the King-led Montgomery Bus Boycotts in which the black community boycotted public transportation, paralyzing the city for a year. Kennedy highlighted this act because the lawsuits following the bus boycott overturned the "separate but equal" clause in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and ended de jure segregation in all areas.

Kennedy continued to catalogue King's success in helping Congress pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

But Kennedy also placed King's legacy in the scheme of global social movements.

'International hero'


Activists from Tianannmen Square to the Berlin Wall have been inspired by King's legacy and have made him not only "an American hero, but an international hero," he said.

After the speech, Kennedy fielded questions from the diverse audience of over 400 community members, faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates. Audience members asked Kennedy to speculate on what King's activities and views on contemporary issues such as affirmative action might have been were he still alive today.

While Kennedy did not speak about specifics, he said King would have continued to be a "champion of human decency . . . and dissent" for the "many social inequities that continue to mar our society."

As a lawyer himself, Kennedy said, one of King's most important lessons was that "laws may be unjust," but added that "law is not the same thing as justice."

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Kennedy's speech constituted only part of the King Day program. University Vice President of Public Affairs Robert Durkee '69 presented awards to community winners of a University essay and poster contest on King's legacy.

What if . . .

The competitors were expected to predict the course of King's life had he not been assassinated. While there were numerous answers, some students envisioned King entering politics, becoming Senator or President and returning to his ministry, Durkee said.

Many area schools brought their students to the program. During the question and answer session, 11-year old Chris Sammons of American Boychoir School of Princeton asked Kennedy if racism would ever end.

Sammons' teacher Holly Weise brought her class to the event. She said it was important that the King holiday not become "a day to go shopping. It is valuable to me as a teacher to bring them here . . . (where) we can come together as a community."

The event closed with a musical performance by Gregory Dean Smith, an admissions assistant at the Wilson School who led the entire audience to hold hands and sing a rousing rendition of "We Shall Overcome."