The meaning of any person’s legacy—even someone as famous as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—can only be measured by its lasting effect on others, according to President Sidney Ribeau.
Challenging the audience, and especially students, to examine their commitment to the ideals King lived by, Ribeau spoke about the civil rights leader Jan. 18 at the city of Bowling Green’s 19th annual Martin Luther King Jr. tribute.
“A legacy is really defined by the impact on others,” Ribeau said. “Dr. King left a legacy writ large, but if there’s not that internalization of those ideals and principles that make us better people, and if it doesn’t govern what we do on a daily basis and inform the ethical decisions we make—then that legacy is nothing more than a written text.”
Ribeau’s fervor on the topic is deep-rooted: He did his doctoral dissertation on the writings of King, sifting through crates and boxes of material in Atlanta long before they had been organized and catalogued as they are today.
“The idea of community was a concept that was beloved by Dr. King,” Ribeau said, and having absorbed that from his study, he said it was important to him to bring the concept to BGSU. It materialized in the “Building Community” focus groups that were held shortly after Ribeau took office and expressed in the “premier learning community” aspiration in the University vision statement.
“If Dr. King were alive today, he would be getting ready to celebrate his 79th birthday,” Ribeau said. Had King not been so devoted to the cause of freedom and rights for all, he probably would still be alive, but he chose to “live life in the center, and he probably would rather not have lived to be 79 if it meant he could not live the life he felt was important,” the president added.
His absolute commitment and willingness to lay down his life in support of the value of every human being should make us all examine what we would give our lives for, Ribeau said.
King’s legacy did not come only from his brilliance as a scholar, Ribeau said, noting that King had graduated from Morehouse University at 19; nor did it come only from being such an eloquent spokesman and his ability to “conceptualize and articulate and symbolize the country as a better place.” It came, Ribeau said, from his “intrinsic world view that said that poverty and suffering anywhere is a threat to freedom and democracy everywhere, and injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
If King were alive today, Ribeau said, he would be just as concerned about Palestine, Darfur, Kenya and Iraq as Cleveland, Chicago and Detroit. That is the type of concern we should have for students at BGSU, Ribeau said, whether they come from affluent or disadvantaged backgrounds, and “for the ‘C’ student as much as the honor student. They should have the same access to education, academic support and counseling.”
King’s world view shaped his political views, according to Ribeau. “King had a deeply profound belief in democracy,” he said. “He believed that to liberate our potential, we must have democracy. As long as you have the idea, there’s the possibility. He knew that democracy was a work in progress. King was no fool—he knew it had not reached its full potential. But in it is the possibility of a more perfect society and a better place.”
He also deeply believed that the way to achieve improvement and lasting change in society is not through violence and threats—not a popular view with some in the 1960s, Ribeau said. “Anger, hatred and violence only beget more anger, hatred and violence,” he said. “Anger does something to you neurologically and physiologically,” he said. “Anger is stored in your brain and it takes its toll—there’s a price to be paid.”
Though the younger, more militant leaders of the day attempted to persuade him to endorse their methods, King told them he was keeping his sights on the long term. “Dr. King said, ‘The violence might take me out, but it won’t take you where you want to go,’” Ribeau recounted. In order to maintain the integrity of his soul and his dignity, he could not become involved in violence. His was always a message of reconciliation and healing.
But he loved young people and always wanted to have them around him, Ribeau said. And though he disagreed with the young radicals such as Stokely Carmichael, he never rejected them. “Don’t condemn them and don’t give up on them,” but try to give them hope for what can be, Ribeau described King’s philosophy.
Whatever the philosophy, in the ‘60s “student protests were not about ‘Give me more’ but for America to fulfill its promise,” Ribeau said. King was a great believer in collective action, and Ribeau exhorted the audience to follow in his footsteps. “We as citizens can’t allow the government to take away from us that which is important. People have a lot more power than we think we have.” He encouraged students to register to vote and get to know the issues. “That’s the first step,” he said.
In a famous speech, King said he dreamed of the day when “my children will be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Ribeau said, “His dream calls on each and every one of us to make that a lived reality. Until we can find a way to bring justice, fairness and equality to daily life, Dr. King’s dream will not be a reality.”