Lackluster Focus for MLK Keynote

Bryan Stevenson, this year’s MLK Day keynote speaker, is a MacArthur Fellowship grant recipient and professor at the NYU School of Law.By Benjamin M. Riley

For a small liberal arts institution in the woods of New Hampshire, Dartmouth College is quite committed to the idea of social justice. Then what better way for the College to highlight its commitment to social justice than to engage in a month-long celebration of the life and values of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.? Or so the College seems to think. I cannot count how many blitzes I have received detailing the numerous (read twenty plus) events connected to the celebration. 

Which is not to say that Dartmouth should not celebrate the life and values of Dr. King. Indeed, there is much to be learned. It is to say that it hardly seems appropriate for a school whose mission entails “educat[ing] the most promising students and prepar[ing] them for a lifetime of learning and of responsible leadership, through a faculty dedicated to teaching and the creation of knowledge” and providing what it calls the “best possible undergraduate education” to spend an entire month in celebration of a single man’s achievements. Any man’s. Whether that man is Martin Luther King, Jr., or Daniel Webster. George Washington or Gandhi. The liberal arts demand the exploration of multifarious perspectives and assorted subjects. To spend a month with much of the administration’s programming focused on a single man is to sacrifice the gift of the liberal arts. Nobody ever accused the administration of being focused on the right things anyway.

Taking place annually on the day of Martin Luther King’s birth, January 21st, a federal holiday, is the keynote address of the College’s celebration. This year’s speaker was the estimable Bryan Stevenson, a social justice lawyer who has devoted his life to ending discrimination in the Deep South. As founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, Stevenson has fought ceaselessly for fairness within the legal system for those who he believes are disadvantaged due to race and poverty. A recipient of myriad awards, including the famed MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Award, Stevenson is a graduate of Harvard Law School, as well as its Kennedy School of Government and currently also serves as a professor at the New York University School of Law. 

The event was held in the Hopkins Center’s Moore Auditorium and, unlike most administration-run events, began right on time. After a brief introduction by the current president of the College’s Afro-American Society (which included an egregious implied reference to the evil that is the Greek System), President Jim Yong Kim was introduced. Kim’s remarks were of the standard variety and included, naturally, a reworking of what must be his favorite quote; that is, John Sloan Dickey’s remarks about the making the troubles of the world your own. 

Following that, Kim lauded former President James Wright’s work towards diversity on campus, citing statistics about the doubling of the percentage of minority students enrolled from the beginning of Wright’s tenure to the end. President Kim also gave nods to increased economic diversity, as well as Wright’s spearheading of the campaign to bring veterans to campus. Following what came across as a paean to the virtue of President Wright, President Kim also delivered kind remarks for Mrs. Wright, and after a brief shake of both their hands, Mr. Stevenson was introduced.

The theme of Mr. Stevenson’s speech was to be identity. That is, his thesis is that every human should make it part of his identity to oppose social injustice and fight for social justice. Using anecdotes from his casework as well as statistics, Stevenson attempted to show that every single human being, including murderers, rapists, and criminals of any and every sort, deserves fairness and compassion. To hear him tell it, you would think every convict he has ever had the pleasure of working with is, if not innocent, at the very least excusable in some manner. Whether the reason was abuse as a child, mental illness, a harmful social environment, or countless other reasons, Mr. Stevenson made it seem that he had never worked with a client who was a mere base criminal. Perhaps it is because he hasn’t. Perhaps all the clients he chooses to take on are fallen angels. Having not had the opportunity to work with Mr. Stevenson, I cannot say. His argument, though, that many of those incarcerated cannot be blamed for their actions because of outside disadvantages over which they have no control is not far from the ‘they were just following orders’ argument. Mr. Stevenson did not say this, of course. He merely related often-heartwarming anecdotes of the humanity of his clients, the essential ways that these convicts are ‘just like us.’ While it is undeniably true that most convicts are more like citizens without records than not, it is also true that many who commit heinous acts are rightfully shut away so they cannot pose further danger to law-abiding society. By deliberately refusing to mention these cases and appealing to base emotional sympathies, Mr. Stevenson is subverting actualities for his own gain. By that I cannot abide.

Ironically enough, much of what Mr. Stevenson has to say is on point. He spoke of the general trend in these United States of over-incarceration — a massive fiscal burden and in many ways an exercise in futility. He decried the lack of available lawyers for those on death row, and a system that denies their constitutional right to a fair trial. These are issues that all Americans, regardless of political or moral affiliation can stand behind. So the speech was not entirely off the mark. 

Unfortunately Mr. Stevenson could not keep his momentum going through his conclusion. Every time he offered a compelling argument, he would seek to bolster it with a rehashed anecdote about the wonderful people with whom he works. His argument seemed to be that not only was it necessary to evaluate context in criminal cases but that context is a necessarily mitigating factor. As I said before, engaging in this sort of behavior leads one down very dangerous paths of justification. His final sentiment was perhaps the most disturbing. Asking, “Why do we kill all the broken people?” he suggested that there is a great, institutionalized conspiracy in this country to do away with those deemed unfit. 

This is mere fantasy. The justice system, while not unbiased, is not a puppet of some grand string-pulling organization set on removing the “broken” [whatever that means] from out society. For Mr. Stevenson to suggest such a thing is for him to belie and indeed deny his own intelligence. While many of his points were worthy, this type of shocking statement left a sour taste in the writer’s mouth, made worse by the speaker’s constant justifications for convicts. Altogether, these stories and that final audacious statement (touted immediately on the administration’s Twitter account) did the speaker more harm than good. No doubt much of Mr. Stevenson’s work is important. There do, however, seem to be better ways to get the point across.

While Mr. Stevenson was eloquent, engaging, and enjoyable to listen to for the hour he spoke, his choice of words presented unavoidable problems. Though his work is virtuous, his willful naïveté is troublesome. 

Here’s hoping next year both the Celebration’s keynote speaker and its duration as a whole are better suited to the goals of a liberal arts college.