Taking inspiration from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
January 15, 2024 10:02 AM

Dear Students, Staff and Faculty,

Welcome back and I hope you had a safe and restful break. We open our new semester on the same day that we celebrate the life and contributions of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I hope you will be able to attend one or more of the services throughout the area.

I also hope the spirit of hope, peace, justice and optimism so many of us will commemorate today will serve as a point of inspiration for how we choose to speak and act toward one another this semester.

We are just weeks beyond the 59-year anniversary of Dr. King’s acceptance of his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. It was against the backdrop of a devastating international conflict that was already dividing the world. Racial segregation and discrimination continued to deprive millions of rights and opportunities here at home. Public demonstrations brought physical and philosophical conflict. Violence, hatred and anger seemed to be the rule of the day.

In that moment he accepted this award for peace in a world that seemed to have none of that commodity, Dr. King chose to speak of optimism. There are three phrases in particular that resonate with me as we seem surrounded by many of the same challenges today. I know these sentences are taken out of context from the speech and I do not imply that my use of them is how Dr. King intended them in his own delivery. But I do wish they might inspire us all to find our way more often to a path of empathy, tolerance and personal respect even as we navigate intense disagreement.   

“I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind.”

“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.”

“I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.”

I quote Dr. King’s words of optimism today because I recognize the reality of the weeks and months ahead. There will certainly be intense disagreements, debates, uncomfortable discussions and public demonstrations around any number of significant issues that are extremely important to different members of our community. We will not all be on the same side of any given issue, and we may very well personally dislike some of those who take an opposing view. But this university must remain a place where free speech, free expression and academic freedom allow for the open exploration of ideas and for the questioning of opposing opinions and differing perspectives. In fact, free speech and academic freedom are most critical and most essential to a university like ours when the topics of discussion truly impact the way members of our community live, work and engage.  

I want to also be very clear that expressions of hate, intimidation, calls for violence against others or actions that threaten the health and safety of members of our community are antithetical to our university values, and those who act in ways contrary to these will be held accountable. The safety of ALL members of our university community is always our priority.

Welcome back to Illinois. I wish you a safe and productive new semester, and I hope you will join me in sharing Dr. King’s audacity of belief that we can find a welcome light of dignity, equality and freedom of spirit together.


Robert J. Jones

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