MLK’s capstone holiday

UND President Mark Kennedy delivers moving address in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day


The UND and Grand Forks communities came together as one on Monday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., and the 50th observance of the holiday that celebrates his life and legacy.

Editor’s note: The following are the words of UND President Mark Kennedy, delivered on Monday, Jan. 15 — MLK Day — at the Gorecki Alumni Center, to mark the nation’s 50th observance of the life and legacy of the slain civil rights leader.

Why is there a Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday? Why are there holidays at all?

James Barrie observed that “God gave us memory so that we might have roses in December.”

Our national leaders gave us holidays to remember those roses, the essential truths upon which our civic lives rests – New Year’s to remember that each moment is precious; Memorial Day to remind us that our freedom was purchased by the ultimate sacrifice of others; July 4th to remember that our nation was founded on the idea that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness;” Thanksgiving to not forget that the Pilgrims would not have survived the winter had the natives not shared their food; Christmas to remind us that whoever we believe God to be, God is not you or me.

Our newest holiday is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. What is it supposed to remind us of? Some believe it is only concerned about those “on the red hills of Georgia” or those that are “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners.” Yet they would be wrong. There is no doubt that King, along with UND’s Leaders in Action Era Bell Thompson, Judge Davies and Fritz Pollard, all of who are profiled in this building, helped achieve progress in sitting “together at the table of brotherhood.”

But today is about more, much more than about ensuring that African Americans can sit anywhere they want on the bus, or that those of any background can sit on that bus or even that those of all backgrounds deserve equal treatment under all laws. I believe it is about remembering the importance of us – u, s – and a reminder that we must earn our A anew each and every year.

An A in what you might ask. My answer is an A in “us.” King embodied the idea that “we” and “they” should be reserved for when UND plays the Gophers in hockey or NDSU in football. In life, King advocated for setting “we” and “they” aside and embracing “us,” the idea that we are not only equal, we are one.

America was founded on the idea of “us.” By embracing the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” over the centuries, America earned a lifetime rating of A in “us.” Getting an A in “us” is the underlying dynamic that truly makes our nation US with an A, USA.

Mark Kennedy

In his speech to honor Martin Luther King Jr., on Monday, UND President Mark Kennedy said MLK Day is much more than about ensuring that African Americans can sit anywhere they want on the bus, or that those of any background can sit on that bus or even that those of all backgrounds deserve equal treatment under all laws. Photo by Shawna Schill/UND Today.

Today’s civic discourse suggests that our grades in “us” have been slipping in recent semesters. Politics seems fixated on how the other side is winning and we are losing in immigration, trade and budget matters.

King counseled, “we must learn to live together as brothers, or perish together as fools.” We are acting very foolish indeed.

King warned, “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” They are in abundance today on both sides of nearly every debate.

Emboldening the public to correct our course, to think less about only our own slice of the pie and more about how together we can make a bigger, better pie requires re-embracing “us.”

Our students take multiple courses in their field of study, often culminating in a capstone course that integrates the findings of all the courses. As the last, most recent holiday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day could be America’s capstone holiday, integrating the lessons of all holidays.

As New Year’s Day reminds us of time passing by, King would admonish us that, “The time is always right to do what is right.”
On Memorial Day, he would remind us that, “The ultimate measure of a [person] is not where [they] stand in moments of comfort and convenience, but where [they] stand in times of challenge and controversy.”

On July 4th, King would observe, “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

On Thanksgiving, as we recount stories of the Mayflower, he would observe, “We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”

On Christmas, King would implore, “Use me, God. Show me how to take who I am, who I want to be, and what I can do, and use it for a purpose greater than myself.”

The reason for this holiday? It is to remind us that as King believed, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, what are you doing for others?”

We at UND embrace King’s belief that a community bonded together is stronger for it. It is the central idea behind our Strategic Plan. It is exemplified in its title – One UND.

As One UND, we endeavor to learn and discover from one another.

As One UND, we expand our ability to learn beyond the confines of a classroom through engagement in our communities.

As One UND, we know that understanding the diverse perspectives of others strengthens today’s students into tomorrow’s Leaders in Action.

We must study hard for the capstone course that Martin Luther King Jr. Day has offered for 50 years. As One UND, One Grand Forks, One North Dakota, we can help our nation continue as US with an A, USA, a beacon that shines for the dignity and freedom of all.

-President Mark Kennedy