MLK Was Here

February 12, 2014

A reflective Reading of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1967 Massey Lectures

East Common Room, Hart House

I am delighted to be here and to welcome you to this evening’s event in honour of Black History Month.

‘MLK was here’ provides us with the opportunity to revisit and reflect upon the words and life of one of the most renowned speakers, thinkers, activists and social leaders of the 20th century: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Let me offer a special welcome to:

  • The Honourable Bob Rae. It is always a privilege to welcome you back to your alma mater. It is a particular honour to have you here this evening as we reflect on an era in which you were involved.
  • Professor Angela Hildyard, Vice-President, Human Resources & Equity
  • Professor Bruce Kidd, Warden of Hart House
  • Ms Janet Somerville, former CBC producer, Ms Somerville worked with Dr. King on the series
  • Mr. Bernie Lucht executive producer, the CBC Massey Lectures and
  • Mr. Steve Smith, MLK historian.

I would also like to acknowledge the hard work and excellent leadership of the organizers of today’s event—the teams from the Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Office, the Multi Faith Centre, here in Hart House and Massey College

In the autumn of 1967, Dr. King delivered the seventh set of Massey Lectures. Established by the CBC, the Massey Lectures are an annual five-part series of talks by a distinguished scholar on a topic of contemporary interest and import.

Over the decades, the Massey Lectures have become a steadfast Canadian institution, an annual highlight of our national intellectual life, and a leading repository of the ideas and observations of many respected change-makers of their time.

The lecture series, co-hosted by Massey College, the CBC and the House of Anansi Press, is also a longstanding exemplar of the way in which the University and local communities may engage in dialogue regarding pressing issues of the day.

As Dr. King recorded the first of his lectures in early November, we know now that it was mere months before he would be assassinated and, incidentally, just weeks before former Governor General and the namesake for the Massey Lectures Vincent Massey’s own death.

At the time, the University of Toronto administration took an apolitical and neutral stance with regard to the matters of the day. Student activists had other ideas.

Generally speaking, universities have long been the site of political protest and action and the students at U of T have a proud history of activism that dates back over a hundred years. In fact, we are just three days shy of the 109th anniversary of one such occasion.

On February 15, 1895, 700 U of T undergraduates—essentially the entire student body—rallied to protest the dismissal of Professor William Dale for defending their cause in a letter to The Globe. Led by the future Prime Minister of Canada, William Lyon Mackenzie King, the students boycotted lectures for a week. The protest set in motion the process that eventually gave rise to the Royal Commission of 1906—the basis of the University of Toronto Act which established the University’s system of governance. And while the values the students were fighting for—namely freedom of expression, critical inquiry and dissent—were not realized in their own time, they have become touchstones of the University today. Examples such as this can be found across the decades.

However, none compare to the widespread social upheaval witnessed in the Sixties. The broader anti-establishment climate that came to define this decade shaped the political culture on university campuses and further radicalized student activists. To avoid stealing Bob Rae’s thunder, I will limit myself to a quick overview of some of the attitudes and activities on campus at the time.

Student leaders were influenced by global, national, and provincial movements aimed at wider societal change, particularly those that sought democratic rights for oppressed groups. Among these, the two that most effectively galvanized student activism were in Vietnam War and Dr. Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement.

Dr. King had provided a template for protest; the tactics of civil disobedience, direct action, and community organizing, and a particular sense of democracy. In fact, it was during the airing of Dr. King’s Conscience for Change lectures—on November 20, 1967—that the University witnessed its most disruptive demonstration to date. On that day, 80 students and faculty members initiated a sit-in to protest recruiting at U of T by Dow Chemical Corporation—a primary manufacturer of the napalm being used in Vietnam. Protesters succeeded in chasing recruiters off campus.

At the same time that student leaders were mobilizing for social change in wider society, students were also reflecting and reacting to their own experiences of university life. By the mid-sixties, evolving conceptions of the role of students within the university community led to the development of a relatively united front. Students wanted changes that would narrow the division between students and faculty. And, by the end of the decade, they had gained a voice in decision making at most levels of the University as well as changes in University governance, teaching and curriculum and disciplinary procedures

It was also during this decade that the role of the University in political activism was hotly debated, with student activists arguing that—and here I quote The Varsity, October 1967:

“By its nature, student or any type of government is a political organization involved in social issues… To suggest that we as students can possibly live in this world and yet isolate ourselves on the campus, is more than ludicrous”

Student activists today continue to fulfill the very important role of challenging and drawing attention to a range of social, political, economic and environmental issues. What has shifted over the years is the role of the university in addressing these wider issues. Contrary to the apolitical approach of the Fifties, academic institutions have the potential—and some would argue the moral imperative—to play a significant role in establishing sustainable and socially-just societies. They do so as engaged members of the community, as creators of knowledge, and as educators of current and future citizens.

Higher education should provide the conditions and the context to examine and address the most pressing challenges of the day. One of my top priorities is to further open the University to local communities, to lend the expertise of our scholars to address such challenges, to encourage and foster the sort of dialogue and collaboration necessary to finding innovative solutions.

The University’s commitment to freedom of speech—the right for dissenting voices and alternate views to be aired and discussed and debated based on their merits alone—is a key element here. As creators of knowledge, universities increasingly recognize the need to foster social innovation in a landscape were global challenges are both economic and social and economic growth must go hand in hand with social progress, shared prosperity, and justice.

Finally, postsecondary education helps to prepare the next generation of engaged citizens; to encourage them to think critically and creatively about the world around them. I am delighted to be here this evening because ‘MLK was here’ aligns nicely with these priorities.

In closing, I once again thank you all for joining us this evening and look forward to a very thoughtful dialogue. Thank you.