Blake D. Morant ’78 (Col ’75), former dean at the George Washington University and Wake Forest University law schools, speaks on “The Contextuality of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Legacy” as part of UVA’s Community MLK Celebration. At the event, Dean Risa Goluboff presented the Gregory H. Swanson Award to UVA Law student Keegan Hudson ’24. Professor Kimberly Jenkins Robinson introduced Morant and Goluboff.
KIMBERLY ROBINSON: Good afternoon.
My name is Kimberly Jenkins Robinson, and I am the director of the Center for the Study of Race and the Law. It is my great privilege to welcome all of you to our annual Martin Luther King Junior celebration and our seventh annual presentation of the Gregory H. Swanson Award.
At a time when our nation continues to wrestle with our long and complicated relationship with race and our society, the annual MLK celebration provides all of us an opportunity to reflect on both what Dr. King accomplished and the work that remains unfinished. We all owe a debt of gratitude to Dr. King. His legacy played a critical role in paving a path that allows us to gather together as the strong and diverse University of Virginia School of Law that we are today. And his legacy challenges us to continue to work diligently to make equality, inclusion, and belonging a reality, not just for our students, our faculty, and our staff, but even more importantly, for the communities and clients that we serve.
Dr. King once said, "it is not possible to be in favor of justice for some people and not be in favor of justice for all people." As lawyers, we are the very instruments of justice that our nation needs to meet this moment. May we take this occasion to draw strength from Dr. King's work and for the work that lies ahead.
The Swanson Award represents UVA Law School building on Dr. King's legacy by recognizing a student who demonstrates the character and conduct of Gregory H. Swanson. Swanson was the first Black student to attend UVA and the law school. And in this event, we honor Swanson's trailblazing efforts and recognize and elevate a student who has demonstrated the standards of character and conduct that Mr. Swanson exemplified. As we do this, we bear witness to our past in a way that lights a path for our future.
I want to welcome our distinguished guests, our keynote speaker, Professor Blake Morant, who is a 1978 graduate of our law school and a 1975 graduate of the college, and his lovely wife, Paulette, who's a 1974 graduate of the college.
I will share more about Professor Morant a bit later. I also am delighted to welcome our Swanson Award winner and his family and friends, and to thank the Black Law Student Association for their co-sponsorship of this event. Now, it is my pleasure to welcome our esteemed dean and historian, Risa Goluboff, who will present the 2024 Gregory H. Swanson Award. Thank you.
RISA GOLUBOFF: I am so delighted to see you all here and welcome you once again, after Kimberly has done, to our law school Martin Luther King Junior commemoration. I want to thank Kimberly for spearheading these events and thank Dean and Professor Blake Morant for speaking with us today. Kimberly will give a more fulsome introduction in a minute, but let me just say Blake is a pathbreaking educator and leader. And I'm so looking forward to hearing your words today, and so delighted that Paulette is able to be here, as well.
So my role is to present the seventh annual Gregory Swanson Award. This is a little bittersweet for me because this is the last such award I will present. And I am delighted to be presenting it today.
From the first time that we gave this award, we did so at our Martin Luther King commemoration. And that was on purpose. Gregory Swanson belongs in the historical narrative of our law school, our university, our Charlottesville community, our commonwealth, and our nation. And so Martin Luther King Day is the appropriate moment to tell his story and make sure that we don't forget it or him.
So before I give the award, I'm going to tell you a brief version of his story. As Kimberly said, Gregory Swanson was the first Black law student at UVA Law School. He was the first Black student at the University of Virginia anywhere in the University. And he was the first Black student to study on an integrated basis at any formerly white university in the former Confederacy. We celebrated him here for the first time in 2018.
The story of Gregory Swanson had long, at the University of Virginia, been considered a story of shame and failure. And as such, it had often been excluded from the way the institution had told its history, although Black students and alums had passed it down from one to another over generations. Mr. Swanson received his law degree at Howard University, and he was hoping to get a job as a law professor at a night school in DC at the time, a Black night school called the Terrell Law School. And so he applied here for an LLM because he needed that in order to teach.
The law school faculty voted to admit him, but the university refused to do so. And Gregory Swanson, with help from the NAACP, sued. There was an oral argument here in federal court in Charlottesville, in the federal court which was above the post office downtown. It's now the library.
There's a plaque outside the library in his honor, as well as in. And Jim Hingeley, who is here, was critical to efforts to honor him there and elsewhere. And after he succeeded in his oral argument, the law school, the university admitted him when the judge required it to. And Swanson believed that his admission to UVA Law would be, quote, "a triumph in the struggle to break down segregation and discrimination, or to bring about equalization in education facilities."
It was hard for Swanson to be here as the only Black student at an otherwise white university in a segregated white Southern town. He was isolated, and he was excluded from large parts of social life. At the same time, he also found a fair bit of support among some students and faculty and from the local YMCA.
And with dignity and courage, he made the most of his education. He took eight courses over his academic year here at UVA, even though he was not required to take any. He took full advantage of all the university had to offer. And he told his story and stood up for civil rights not only at the university, but around the commonwealth as a frequent speaker in Black churches, for the NAACP, and a writer of many editorials.
There were a lot of myths circulating about Mr. Swanson's departure from UVA-- that he left early, that he failed to get a degree, that the university outright refused to give him one. All of those stories are false, it turns out. It turns out that, starting in the mid 1940s, UVA, like many other law schools, created a new LLM program. And it wasn't that well-organized.
Very few of the students of any race who participated in this LLM program actually got a degree. They would come here for their coursework for a year, they would go back to their practice lives, and they wouldn't finish their theses. And that is hard to do, as we all know. It's hard to write a paper while you're practicing law.
And that is especially the case when, like Mr. Swanson, they represented a Black man accused of rape at the end of their school year here, or, like Mr. Swanson, spoke often publicly about civil rights, played a prominent role in civil rights organizing, set up his own private practice, and as the Terrell Law School had closed in the interim, no longer needed the degree for the goal that he had. He was not going to teach law. And so like so many others, he found his life and his career taking him in other directions.
In other words, there was so much success here for Gregory Swanson-- success in using the law to do justice in the best traditions of our profession. Success in changing the face of this university and this law school and inspiring other Black students who quickly followed him to UVA and prompting other universities in Virginia to integrate after his successful lawsuit. Success in helping make us the diverse and inclusive institution we are today.
Success in navigating a situation that would have cowed a lesser person. Success, in sum, in changing the world. And for all his many contributions, Gregory Swanson has been honored by both the Maryland and the Virginia general assemblies, as well as our law school and our university. We commemorated Gregory Swanson for all of that in 2018 and every year since. And we do so again today.
As may already be clear from the ambivalences of this story, today is not a celebration. It's a commemoration, which is something different. It's something more sober, and with a quality of contemplation, that the history we mark is not all joy and light, that there is regret in this story that I have been telling. And telling this story enables us to repudiate parts of it-- our past as a segregated university and law school, our past of exclusion and rejection.
At the same time, telling this story, and especially telling it in conjunction with our Martin Luther King celebrations, where we honor not only King himself but all of those who have made and continue to make the world a more just and equal place, including today's speaker, Blake Morant, enables us to honor Gregory Swanson and embrace him as part of our national history and our civil rights history as the client determined to integrate the University of Virginia, the lawyer who brought a lawsuit to make that happen, and the person who lived that integration firsthand with dignity and grace.
Telling this story reminds us that we remake history every day. And indeed, we remake history every day in part through the stories we choose to tell about ourselves and our past. We get to shape who we are as an institution and who we want to be in the future. We have chosen, and we choose again and again every day, to be the institution Gregory Swanson helped us to become.
So we created the Gregory Swanson Award to link our past and our present, to honor Gregory Swanson and honor members of our community today who are following in his path and following in his footsteps. And I could not be more delighted at the final Gregory Swanson Award I get to give in my final year as dean and to announce the winner of our seventh annual award, recognizing students for their courage, perseverance, and commitment to justice. This year's winner is third-year student Keegan Hudson.
You clap now, but just wait till you hear the rest. As Professor Alex Johnson, who had him in two classes, put it, "Keegan represents an exemplar of the attributes you seek for a recipient of the Gregory H. Swanson Award. His commitment to justice is unwavering and his perseverance is proven by the many accomplishments he has achieved at the law school in such a short time. In both classes he took with me, he was courageous enough not only to be a vocal participant, but he was also willing to express comments that were not mainstream and which encouraged his peers to consider the plight of those less fortunate, not as fortunate as themselves."
"Across his two and a half years at the law school, Keegan has shown himself to be a remarkable and energetic member of our community." And I will not be able to quote from everyone's letter because there are too many, and I will not be able to say everything he did, but-- I'm going to take a big breath now-- he has served as the president of our Black Law Students Association chapter, a member of the Virginia Environmental Law Journal, a fellow of the school's Center for the Study of Race and Law, an admissions ambassador-- I'm still going-- a member of the law school's curriculum committee, and a member of the Raven Society.
He also serves as a member of the law school admission council's inaugural student advisory group. Keegan is a graduate of Alcorn State University and a former staff assistant for US Representative James Clyburn. He also interned on Capitol Hill for both the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and the House Committee on Homeland Security, where he exhibited extraordinary courage on January 6, as well as at other times.
Keegan spent both of his law school summers in Texas, first at Bracewell in Houston and then at Akin Gump in Dallas.
Laura Louise Rice, who has followed Keegan as BLSA's president, wrote that Keegan, quote, "has consistently exemplified the bridge building and human connection necessary to build a community of trust, regardless of personal beliefs, a condition necessary for achieving true justice."
Kyle Trotman, one of Keegan's mentees, also sees Keegan as a model. Quote, "As my mentor, Keegan has never missed a chance to support me and has emboldened me to go after opportunities I previously would have discounted as being out of reach. Through his example, I've learned leadership is for those who have the courage to undertake responsibility for the betterment of others."
The many letters supporting Keegan's nomination for this year's Swanson Award echoed these same themes, that Keegan is a true servant leader who routinely puts others before himself, that he builds community wherever he goes in the organizations and classes and friend groups he is a part of, and also with the people he happens to sit next to, the prospective students he happens to meet, and the other classmates, faculty, staff, and colleagues he encounters along the way.
Through kindness-- through his example, he sets kindness, wisdom, and encouragement above all else, and he shares those with everyone around him, enabling everyone to become their best selves. And he demands the same of the institutions and communities of which he is a part.
I have personally had the pleasure of witnessing these and many other amazing attributes in Keegan, and I will add only this for myself, that even in hard times, Keegan's instinct is always a smile and a hug and a genuine question. He is visibly intent upon authentic, curious, joyous, human connection.
So I want to end with Assistant Dean Mark Jefferson's reflection on how fitting this award is for Keegan. Quote, "Keegan places others before himself. He values, sometimes to a fault, the well-being of his community over his own well-being. He is the kind of human being you'd be wise to turn to in a pinch because whatever the distance he needs to travel to help you through and over to the other side of whatever you are going through, Keegan will travel it with you, step by step, and shoulder to shoulder."
I am delighted and honored to present this year's Swanson Award to Keegan Hudson.
KEEGAN HUDSON: To God be the glory because any recognition of my actions or my character honors the faith and the principles which have guided them. It also honors my parents, who traveled over 14 hours to be here today.
And today, the University of Virginia School of Law acknowledges the efforts that they deemed honorable, the honor, integrity, and respect that they forged. Thank you, Dean Goluboff, for your introduction and kind words. It has really been a privilege to attend UVA Law under your leadership. I'm so grateful to you.
Thank you, Professor Robinson, and the Black Law Students Association for holding this event. And thank you, Professor Moran, for returning to Charlottesville to speak at today's program. And thank you to all in the audience for your time and hopefully for your patience as you continue to hear me repeat the words "thank you" for the next few minutes.
But know that my gratitude today is not mere humility. It is reality. It is the understanding that a person's character is a direct reflection of the people that they share a proximity to. And as my great-grandfather would say, I've been fortunate to share a proximity to tall timber during my time here at UVA Law and during my life generally.
So let us not look favorably upon the mentorship that I have enacted without acknowledging the mentorship that I have received from administration, professors, faculty, and peers here at UVA. Simultaneously, know that my actions are simply reciprocity for the lessons that friendship has offered to me.
Lessons such as the lesson of loyalty from Nia Saunders, the lesson of love from Laura Louise, the lesson of duty from JR, the lesson of passion from Tommy, the lesson of compassion from Tolu, the lesson of unconditionality from Daren, and the lesson that friendship is essential to the soul for my brothers of Omega Psi Phi.
In everything that I do, I can only hope to help others the way that my friends have helped me. That said, the display of courage, perseverance, and a commitment to justice is facilitated when you have the luxury of passion. And it is easy to be passionate when you are surrounded by uplifting individuals. And for that, I thank you all, and I humbly accept this year's Swanson Award.
KIMBERLY ROBINSON: All right so let me just add my warm congratulations to Keegan, who I have the pleasure of working with as a fellow at the Center for the Study of Race and the Law. He is truly a rock star amongst us, and I cannot wait to see how you light up our world as you go out into the world. So thank you.
So now I am delighted to welcome to the podium Dean and Professor Blake Morant. He is the Robert Kramer Research Professor of Law at the George Washington University law school, and he served as dean of the law school from 2014 to 2019. Dean Morant was also dean of the Wake Forest University School of Law, where he built a national reputation as an exceptional law school administrator, a tireless advocate for students, and a respected legal scholar. In each of these deanships, Dean Morant was the first African-American to hold this role.
He has published extensively in the areas of scholarly-- in his areas of scholarly focus, including contract theory, media law, and administrative law, and has been an active in national professional legal organizations throughout his career. Dean Morant was president of the Association of American Law Schools in 2015. And he was named the John R. Kramer Outstanding Law Dean by Equal Justice Works and was recognized three times by National Jurist Magazine as one of the most influential people in legal education.
He was twice named-- you start to see a theme here.
People love Dean Morant, and they recognize his many attributes. He was twice named Professor of the Year by the Women Law Students Organization at Washington and Lee University, and he received five awards for Outstanding Teacher at the University of Toledo College of Law.
He previously has taught at the law schools at American University, University of Toledo, Michigan, University of Alabama, and Washington and Lee University, and he served as a visiting fellow at Oxford-- at University College at Oxford.
Prior to his distinguished academic career, he served in the Army Judge Advocate General Corps, as a senior associate with the Washington DC law firm, and as an assistant general counsel for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. It is now my privilege to give a warm welcome to Dean Morant.
BLAKE MORANT: Oh my goodness, ladies and gentlemen. Aren't you so pleased when you're introduced by someone who read your mother's diary?
I'm just sort of humbled, but she did-- she left out the part when I didn't do my homework when I was in the eighth grade. Ladies and gentlemen, first of all, let me thank so many people who are responsible for this event today. First of all, to Professor Kimberly Jenkins-Robinson, who heads up the center. I've known her for a number of years. Ladies and gentlemen, she is a rock star in this whole area of higher education. I look forward to doing whatever I can to support you in this. Thank you so much for that invitation.
Dean Goluboff-- now, what can I say? Now, I've had the opportunity to work with deans all over the country. I want to tell you, ladies and gentlemen, this young lady is truly one of the most dynamic deans in the United States. Now, you think about this. Legal education is going through so many changes right now. To have someone with vision, someone who believes in education for all individuals, who sticks to those guns, even when you have naysayers who say they shouldn't-- she is an exemplar in this. And thank you so much for being here today. I really appreciate it.
I have some others that I really want to talk about, and I don't have that much time. I'm just so excited to be here. Kim Forde-Mazrui, Professor Mazrui, who's been a friend of mine for very many years. Thank you so much for coming. And thank you for encouraging your students to come, even if they might get extra credit for doing so.
There are a number of people here on the faculty who couldn't be here, Paul Steffens, who's on the faculty, John Jeffries, who taught me criminal law, years ago, when I was a child prodigy as a student.
Rebecca Klaff-- I don't if she's here. There's Rebecca back there. For your patience and indulgence-- it's been a crazy semester for me, folks, because I'm all over the place. Rebecca kindly reminded you're coming to the university on January 24.
In all seriousness, thank you so much for all of the efforts that you've done on my behalf.
Ladies and gentlemen, I would not be the man I am today, where I'm sitting here now, if it wasn't for a wonderful person that I met here at the university. Now, I met this person at Old Cabell Hall. I'm going to talk a little bit more about old Cabell Hall when I talk about the legacy of Dr. King, but I remember as a first-year student meeting this very tall, elegant woman who was introduced to me by a friend of ours, a mutual friend, who had a very interesting background. She was of Jewish-Russian background. And she and I became friends, and she said, there's this woman you absolutely have to meet. 45 years later, she has been my wife and supporter. Paulette, thank you so much.
I want to acknowledge Gregory Swanson, who blazed a trail that's left an indelible mark here at the University of Virginia. And I've got to say, there is no fitting testimony to what he has done but by an award given to this wonderful young man, Keegan Hudson. I had met him last year when I had the opportunity to go to the BLSA gala. When everyone talks about what is the future of our nation, what's going to happen in terms of everything that we do, where are we going to go during this time of great angst-- you see someone like Keegan and you go, our country is secure. Congratulations, my young friend.
I only have 30 minutes, and I have so much to say, but I also have to give homage to John Merchant. Now, John Merchant is someone who is the first African-American to get a JD here at the university. Paulette and I had the opportunity to meet John when I was a BLSA student. He, with Gregory Swanson, I think give great luster to the history and everything here at this law school, so I'm gratified to recognize them both as being a part of this.
Now, I don't have that much time, and I've got to leave some time for you to ask questions. I want to tell you one thing before I begin. And the first thing is coming back to my alma mater is so gratifying. I have spoken at venues all over the world. I've been very blessed to do that. I was so nervous coming back here.
And it's sort of like-- everybody said, well, Blake, it's like going back to family. It's family. Yeah, it's family, but if you know my family--
I remember when I first got tenure and I went home, and I told my mom. I said, Mom, guess what? I've got tenure. And she said, darling, that's wonderful. Go put out the trash.
But it is certainly a privilege and pleasure to be here today, to pay homage to, really, one of the heroes of the 20th century, and that is Martin Luther King, Jr.
Now, I'm going to deviate from my usual sort of style of speaking. Usually, I use absolutely no notes and absolutely go off the cuff. There's so much richness here, and my time is limited. I'm going to read, but punctuate, so please bear with me as I do this. And I hope the technology works. OK.
Let me begin with a fundamental truism. That is that law, which tends to be the positivist engine that ensures equal rights, has its origins in context. The problems and inequities that exist in a society have historically been rectified by visionaries who employ law and legal principles to ensure the universal enjoyment of fundamental human rights that are enshrined in our modern democracy.
I have occasionally advanced my belief in the importance of context in the deconstruction of societal problems and the law's response to those problems. As a contextualist that I am proudly a part of, I have argued that humanity and the laws enacted to regulate conduct are significantly influenced by the context in which we live and interact.
Context then often triggers movement toward desired ends that reflect our constitutional belief in justice, equality, and fairness. In my view, there is perhaps no greater contextualist of the 20th century than the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. He remains an iconic figure to celebrate during these times of considerable stress on our democracy today.
Context defined Dr. King's life. A son of the South and significantly influenced by his father, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Sr, Dr. King's ideology and social activism was rooted in African-American Baptist Orth-- Baptist Ortho-- Baptist Orthodoxy. The tradition of rhetorical evangelicalism in the nonpolitical sense fostered his incredible charismatic gift for persuasion.
King grew up during a period of intense Jim Crow oppression. A gifted student, he matriculated at Morehouse College at the age of 15. He then studied at Crozer Theological Seminary, where he learned of Mohandas Gandhi's philosophy of nonviolence. He later attained his doctor of philosophy from Boston University and ultimately became a recognized scholar of history and political philosophy.
Dr. King is perhaps best known for being one of the architects of the 20th century civil rights movement. He, along with Bayard Rustin-- and I might interject here. Bayard Rustin was an individual who closely worked with King that you don't hear that much about. He was a gay American who was openly gay, but believed in civil rights for everyone. And there's an excellent movie about him on Netflix now that I recommend to you.
Joined by A. Philip Randolph, Whitney Young, James Farmer, and the late congressman John Lewis, organized nonviolent demonstrations against segregation and racial injustice. The iconic 1963 March on Washington, where King delivered his stirring "I Have a Dream" speech arguably became the most noteworthy of these demonstrations.
Now, Dr. King's message of hope and unity inspired allies of all races. Indeed, celebrities of the day-- now, there are many students out there. I'm so glad. You're going to hear-- you won't these names. They were big-time celebrities. Tony Curtis, James Garner, Charlton Heston, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Rita Moreno, Marlon Brando, Burt Lancaster, and Harry Belafonte, whom Paulette and I had the pleasure of meeting while we were at Wake Forest-- all of whom recognized the universality of King's messages and marched with him in solidarity.
Now, his message of justice and equality were rooted in natural law and has contextual relevance beyond the field of civil rights. Now, I have to shamelessly admit that a challenge to contribute to a University of Alabama symposium devoted to King's philosophies prompted my research into the relevance of his theories of justice to contract theory. To this day, that article that I wrote many years ago in anticipation of tenure resurfaces in symposium classes that deconstruct King's messages of fairness and equality.
I posit that Dr. King's philosophies have contemporary relevance. This thesis confirms the contextual salience of his messages from his death, from the death of George Floyd, to a heightened awareness of race and ethnicity as divisive political tools, Dr. King's advancement of social justice and unity remains a societal imperative today and confirms the contemporary contextuality of Dr. King's messages.
Context inspired Dr. King's desire for social change. On April 10, 1963, Circuit Court Judge W.H. Jenkins instituted a blanket injunction against most forms of nonviolent protest in Alabama. Defying this order, Dr. King and other noted social activists led coordinated marches and sit-ins against racism and segregation in the city of Birmingham.
After his arrest and incarceration for violating Judge Jenkins' order, Dr. King penned his now famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail," a letter that he sent to many white clergy who criticized his nonviolent movement.
And King wrote in part, "You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court's decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in public schools, it is rather strange and paradoxical to find us consciously breaking laws.
One may well ask, How can you advocate breaking some laws and then obeying others? The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws. There are just laws and there are unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that, quote, 'an unjust law is no law at all.'"
Perhaps King's most dramatic moment took place on the mall of the nation's capital during the March on Washington in 1963. In his "I Have a Dream" speech, Dr. King movingly stated, "I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."
This dream, and others in his stirring speech, were delivered in an oratory style that added urgency to the need for racial equality. Now, the power and delivery of this impassioned message has been indelibly etched into the nation's consciousness and continues as an anthem as we grapple with issues of race and social justice today.
Prior to his "I Have a Dream" speech, Dr. King surprisingly delivered an address here on the grounds of the university on March 25, 1963. Now, I must admit. I only recently discovered that Dr. King made this address before his address on the mall. That message had the same type of things, but delivered in a slightly different way.
But how did this all come about? In the early '60s, the University of Virginia, indeed many non-HBCU universities in the country, were largely segregated and had very few students of color in attendance. In 1963, however, several African-American students attended the university, one of which is an individual by the name of Wesley Harris, who currently serves as a professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT.
After experiencing disparate treatment in academic programming, Professor Harris, fewer than 12 other African-American students, and a number of white students formed the Thomas Jefferson Virginia Council on Human Relations. I call this the Council. The Council's objectives included the provision of a safe place for students of color and the establishment of a program to address social issues here at the university and in surrounding communities.
Then-student Wesley Harris, along with several other African-American students, had intently studied Dr. King's inspiring quest for desegregation and civil rights for African-Americans. Noting these problems at the university, and with the assistance of Professor Paul Gaston of the history department at the university, then-student Wesley Harris sent a letter of invitation to Dr. King at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Dr. King regularly preached. Much to the surprise of the students and Professor Gaston, Dr. King agreed to speak at Old Cabell Hall on the main grounds.
Now, how many of you have been to Old Cabell Hall? Been in Old Cabell-- now, in addition to meeting my wife there, I also played in the wind ensemble, and I was there many times. Little did I know of its historical significance in the Civil Rights Movement.
Wesley Harris publicized Dr. King's address throughout the Charlottesville community, focusing intently on the Black churches. The day before his address, Harris, along with Professor Gaston and other members of the Council, welcomed Dr. King warmly to the grounds. They ushered him to the only hotel that African-Americans could stay in Charlottesville. They hosted a dinner for him at the university cafeteria, which is no longer there, ladies and gentlemen, but offered the best spaghetti you could ever have.
In addition to hosting him at the U Caf, they then took him on a tour of the university. During that tour, there was a gunshot fired. Dr. King fell to the ground, and everybody looked in amazement. They looked up. There was no gun. It was a backfire of a truck. What it told them was King was very much aware of his vulnerabilities. And he came to the university. Usually, he had bodyguards. He came to the university without a bodyguard because he saw the importance of addressing this community at a time when his movement was really taking shape.
The next day in the auditorium of Old Cabell Hall, Dr. King spoke to a surprisingly large and diverse audience. Many in attendance were community members. Approximately one third of that audience was white.
Wesley Harris and many others in attendance expected Dr. King, who was famous for his impassioned oratory that was born of the Southern Baptist tradition, to deliver this stirring sermon on the evils of segregation and the importance of racial equality and unity.
Much to everybody's surprise, King offered a scholarly lecture on the meaning of democracy and the duty to adhere to fundamental principles of equality as established by our founding fathers. Aware of the scholarly context of the university, Dr. King adapted his style of oratory to fit the academic setting to which he was addressing.
One of the most memorable quotes from that lecture that he gave is this. "If democracy is to live, segregation must die." Five months later, King reverted to his more typical oratory style and delivered a charismatic address of "I Have a Dream."
I believe that the contextuality of King's quest for civil rights and racial equality, most notably demonstrated by his appearance here on the grounds, compels all of us to contemporize his message as we confront injustice and inequality, concepts with which our society continues to struggle today.
While significant strides have been made, we now witness denials of discrimination and its vestiges. Equally pernicious, we see overt efforts to divide the body politic at a time in which unity has become a national imperative.
The quest for unity, particularly as we compete in a global market, remains a somewhat understated yet ubiquitous element of King's messages. Toward the end of his life, he broadened his human rights agenda to include the moral dilemma of armed conflict, such as that in Vietnam, and social inequities based on class as well as race. He demonstrated the universality of inequality as it related to African-Americans, poor whites, and other disadvantaged classes. In a speech delivered in a Philadelphia junior high school six months before he was assassinated, Dr. King echoed his plea for a coalition of all of these classes that seek equity for anyone of disadvantage.
Unfortunately, a bullet shot by James Earl Ray on April 4, 1968 ended his quest to build that coalition. Given the contextual relevance of King's messages of social justice and compassionate unity, all scholars, academics, those wedded to the ideals of justice for all, are all stewards of this fragile ideal of democracy that we are seeing today. All of us have a moral obligation to advance and carry forward Dr. King's quest for justice and inequity.
For academics and members of the legal profession, this imperative includes promotion of the rule of law, the recognition that diversity, which has been an endemic reality in American society, remains an imperative in equality and holistic program of education.
Writings describing the philosophies of Sir Thomas More, Lord Chancellor of England during the reign of Henry VIII, posit that lawyers must assist society in rejecting its, quote, "lesser angels" and inspire communities to promote a more just and equitable society for all. Divisionism, the pushback against equity and inclusion, and perhaps most disturbing, a growing incivility that erodes civil discourse and conduct, become challenges that we, as legally trained individuals, must face and counter.
The lack of inclusion in society delegitimizes societal institutions that hold a democracy together. Society functions best when all classes of citizens have a seat at the decisional table, have access to competent legal representation, and are subject to decision making that recognizes that context shapes law that we study and that we must enforce.
I dare say that had he lived, Dr. King would marvel at some of the improvements and progress in human rights achieved in the over 55 years since his death. By the same token, he might likely have been dismayed by the retrenchment that's come in recent years. Despite these setbacks, the relevance of King's messages of hope and of promise, of equity, compels us to remain steadfast on the course of racial unity and universal justice.
I regret that I never met Dr. King. I have, however, been privileged enough to meet individuals who knew him, who had engaged him. Perhaps particularly most notable among these was the late Dr. Maya Angelou, who was a distinguished member of the English Department at Wake Forest. Now, I met Dr. Angelou when I was a-- when I was dean at Wake Forest. And I've got to say, if you've seen her, if you've heard her talk, her presence is even more moving when you're there.
We were invited to have dinner with Dr. Angelou. And you got to know-- the schedule of a dean is so complex that when an invitation comes up, usually, there's a conflict. When I got this invitation to have dinner with Dr. Angelou, even though it was to raise money for the school, it got shoved aside. I really wanted to see this iconic woman and what she had to say.
So Paulette and I and several other faculty members were invited to dinner at her home, and she prepared this dinner. And she regaled us in all kinds of stories about not only her life, but also about how she had to overcome discrimination and how appreciating diversity is going to be the key to our nation progressing.
In that distinctive voice that she had, she said to us, and I quote, "We are a society with a beautiful mosaic of individuals with differences. While our commonalities are much more fundamental, we tend to focus more on those differences." She then tasked all of us who had dinner with her to achieve unity through the promotion of our commonalities.
Dr. Angelou's statement, which she saw as a corollary to King's message of unity, remains an inspiring challenges not for us, but for all academics and members of the legal profession. Like Dr. King, she calls for uniting diverse individuals in the quest for a greater and more equitable society. Academics of all varieties and those in the legal profession must be leaders in this quest and take strength from Dr. King's statement that, and I quote, "A great leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a molder of consensus."
I want to close with the words of Dr. King delivered in Oslo, Norway while accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. "I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive good will proclaim the rule of the land. 'And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and everyone shall sit at their own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid.' I still believe that we shall overcome."
Thank you so much, ladies and gentlemen, for this opportunity.