The Chancellor’s Desk: Dr. King Spoke to My Life

Chancellor Matthew Goldstein graduated from The City College of New York in June 1963 at a turbulent time in the nation’s history — the height of the Civil Rights movement. He reflected on his own graduation, and on the challenge posed by its celebrated  commencement speaker, in his own commencement address to CCNY’s Class of 2013. The following column, Dr. Goldstein’s last as Chancellor, is excerpted from his address. For the full address see:

Fifty years ago, I sat in Lewisohn Stadium, waiting for my CCNY diploma.  I was in my best shirt and tie, my mortarboard was square on my head — and, I admit it, I was a little bored.

But something unusual happened the night of June 12, 1963 — because the speaker who rose to address our class was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

It was less than 24 hours after civil rights activist Medgar Evers had been murdered.  And one day after Gov. George Wallace had tried to prevent two black students from entering the all-white University of Alabama. And just one night after President Kennedy’s televised address in support of his civil rights bill.

So Dr. King wasn’t at City College to suggest how we might achieve personal success.  He was there to tell us what our education was really for.

We live in a day of great crisis, Dr. King told us.  Our dilemma was that “we have allowed the means by which we live to outdistance the ends for which we live.”  A complete education, he said, bestows not only “the power of concentration” but also “worthy objectives upon which to concentrate.”

Dr. King’s call for moral clarity and action carried to every corner of the stadium through his emotion, his cadence, the timbre of his voice.  “We must honestly see that the harvest of violence that we are now reaping is due to seeds of apathy planted in the past,” he said.  What’s more, the violence wasn’t just a result of  “the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people,” but “the appalling silence and apathy of the good people.”

And indeed, there was silence in the stadium. Word by word, my own boredom and apathy were held up to me.  My classmates and I were confronted by this truth, straight from the soul: our apathy was a weapon for others to use.

Two months later, during Dr. King’s historic speech at the March on Washington, I heard some of the same words he had said at City College, including his unforgettable ending: “With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood …. when all of God’s children … will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’ ”

That day in June 1963 was an awakening for me.  I began to focus more deeply on the road ahead.  The way I made choices started to change.  Was I only doing the expected, what might make me look good?  Or was I trying to do good?  The truth wasn’t always comforting.  But over the years, I began to understand that when I attempted difficult things because I knew they had the potential for real impact, the answers to those questions changed.

My life has taken turns I never could have expected.  I certainly never expected to be chancellor of this wonderful institution — the most fulfilling choice I ever made.

I grew up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in a family that didn’t have much.  When I came to CCNY, I encountered a magically different world.  It was like being let into a secret place in the city, an enclave of great architecture, smart people and big ideas — just like it is today. Since then, I’ve seen thousands of graduates have their lives transformed by it.  In turn, they’ve transformed the lives of countless others.

That journey happened because Dr. King was right. There is no room for boredom or apathy or silence in your life.  “Human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability,” Dr. King said 50 years ago.  “Human progress comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals.”

Graduates, you haven’t reached this day in order to be something; you’ve reached this day in order to do something — something meaningful. Dr. King understood that graduation isn’t about accomplishment; it’s about commitment.  Education doesn’t bestow privilege, but responsibility.

I’m reminded of a story about a tribal elder living his last days on an Indian reservation.  He is accosted by three thugs, who taunt him.  One says, “If you’re such a wise man, then you should be able to answer this question: I have a bird in my hand.  Old man, is the bird alive or dead?”  If the old man says the bird is alive, the thug will pinch the beak and it will die.  If he answers that it’s dead, the thug will open his hand and the bird will fly away.  The old man is silent for a moment.  Then he says, “The answer is in your hands.”

And so it is with you.