"These Are Times for Real Choices"
The following is a draft of the oration delivered in Sanders Theatre on Class Day, June 12, 1968. Henry Norr, Class Orator, made his remarks immediately preceding a speech by Mrs. Coretta Scott King, whom the Class of 1968 invited to speak in replacement of her husband.
"THESE are times for real choices and not false ones. We are at the moment when our lives must be placed on the line if our nation is to survive its own folly. Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest."
The words are those of the late Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Better, I think, than any others, they characterize the mood of our generation. The Class of 1968 emerges from its campuses at the head of a rising tide of youthful dissatisfaction. It is too easy to dismiss the obvious malaise of youth as nothing but a new manifestation of the age-old conflict between parents and children. More is at issue here, much more. This generation wants not simply to replace its parents in the positions of power and prominence in American society, but, more importantly, to change that society.
The new mood of youth shows itself, as we all know, in a variety of forms. Today I want to speak about one controversial segment of our generation, the segment that I know best and consider myself a part of: that group of young men and women whose dissatisfaction has taken the form of a movement for fundamental change in America's social, political, and economic institutions. This group, of course, is still only a minority of the generation--but it is a growing minority, and one that includes many of the most vital, intelligent, and courageous young people.
We have heard a great deal of late about the so-called nihilism of this student movement, about our alleged love of rebellion for its own sake, about the pleasure we supposedly derive from the very act of disruption. But if that is all you see, then you have a problem of perception. Such blind condemnation can only confirm the already prevalent suspicion that somehow you can't or won't listen to what we have been trying to say--that, come what may, you won't be stirred from your business-asusual complacency. If our generation in general, and the movement in particular, have to be described in a word or two, I would call them not a nihilistic generation but above all else a moral generation--in this time of perpetual crisis and recurrent tragedy, a desperately moral generation.
And you shouldn't have far to look if you seek the sources of our morality--the sociologists have pointed out, for those who can't see it for themselves, that our ideals are your ideals, or at least what you have professed to be your ideals. Nor are they difficult to understand. Honesty, equality, peace, love--these are the words you have taught us to respect, and these are the values we have taken to heart. But at the very moment that you stress these abstractions, you seem to be asking us to accommodate ourselves to a society that reduces them to slogans and then proceeds blatantly to disregard them.
YOU TEACH us to be honest, but what we see around us is a world afraid of the truth--a culture characterized by hypocrisy, evasion, distortion, and outright lies. We have long since grown accustomed to such dishonesty from the mass media and from the elected officials who rule our nation. This past year the affliction seems to have spread even to the highest reaches of our own university. Indeed, almost as often as our brothers at Columbia, we have had occasion to recall the late Upton Sinclair's descripiton of the modern college president as "the most universal faker and the most variegated prevaricator that has yet appeared in the civilized world."
From childhood you have told us that America is built on the principle that all men are created equal, but you cannot hide from us the vast inequalities of our society. We have only to look around us to see that institutions like Harvard still exist mainly for the sons and daughters of the white upper middle classes. We have grown up with the civil rights struggle, and we know that our black brethren still face indifference, abuse, or even death when they stand up for what we once naively thought were God-given rights. Our teachers and our textbooks tell us that the gap between rich and poor in our society has scarcely narrowed in more than fifty years. Deprivation persists amidst affluence, for our economy, for all its productivity and all its prosperity, still rests on the exploitation and manipulation of the many for the profit of the few.
And peace you have taught us to value but violence pervades our national life. The few voices that have a ring of sanity and humanity are ruthlessly silenced. Meanwhile, you have undertaken, and even asked us to wage for you a brutal and obscene war, a war that outrages our moral sensibilities and our political intelligence.
And we are supposed to cherish love, in a nation filled with hate--a nation where those who preach love are mocked, harrassed or beaten.
So we go out into the world not cheerful, but determined. Our task is clear--it is for us to build a movement to implement the ideals that you have taught us. Our first objective, obviously, must be to bring our troops home from Vietnam immediately. This is, of course, an issue of crucial importance to all Americans, and in fact to all the world, but the class of 1968 faces it with painful immediacy. I believe it is fair to say that our class, almost to a man, opposed in some way our government's policies in Asia. Many of us go further--more than a hundred members of the class have pledged that they will not serve in the armed forces while this war continues.
But our movement won't stop when and if this war should end. We have learned our lesson--we must go on to change the institutions of our society, the institutions that produced this abominable war, the institutions that have perpetuated the servitude of black Americans for more than 300 years, the institutions that make violence our national past-time. What we need is a radical restructuring of our society, from bottom to top.
As students we begin by changing our universities, to make the democracy and freedom that they preach realities within their own confines. Student power is more than just a slogan--it represents a serious effort to give new substance to that old Harvard phrase, "general education for a free society." To this end, I am trying to do my small part by running for a place on the Board of Overeeers, and I ask all who believe that students and faculty deserve a voice on Harvard's governing boards to sign the nominating certificates that are circulating today and tomorrow.
BUT IN the long run the structure of the university is of only secondary importance in the life of the society. We have much more to do if we are to have meaningful democracy in this country--we must bring political decision-making back to the people, putting it on a scale where individuals can comprehend the issues and participate effectively. In the economy, we must replace the principle of private ownership of the means of production by democratic, social control, so that the waste and destruction that now consume our billions may end, and our vast productive resources may be devoted to the satisfaction of genuine human needs.
This, then, is the mood of a growing segment of our youth. We are radicals, yes, and proudly, for in the face of the contradictions that our society presents, we can be nothing else, without sacrificing our integrity.
It would have been altogether fitting that Dr. King address a class like ours.
From the Montgomery bus boycott to the strike of the Memphis garbage-workers, he stood up in the face of institutionalized immorality, cried out to the world and devoted himself unstintingly to the eradication of the evil that he saw.
The sources of the new mood that I have tried to describe are manifold and complex, but there can be no doubt that the historians who will chronicle this movement will give a preeminent place to the inspiration that Dr. King provided.
Dr. King is now gone, like John F. Kennedy, like so many others destroyed by America. But the movement that he helped inspire continues and grows and will not be stopped. We are fortunate today to have with us the woman who has courageously stepped forward to help fill the vast gulf that his death leaves, a woman who has taken upon herself to be mother to four young children and at the same time to replace her husband as minister to the soul of a troubled society. Ladies and gentlemen, it is my privilege to introduce to you, Mrs. Coretta Scott King.