Chancell-ing: UC Davis Chancellor Gary May's Column

Remembering MLK: His light still driving out darkness

I am often reminded of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  Sometimes it’s as simple as pressing the shuffle on my iPod and hearing the lyrics of “Pride (In the Name of Love)” by the rock band U2:

Early morning, April 4 … Shot rings out in the Memphis sky/ Free at last, they took your life … They could not take your pride

The song is about Dr. King and these lyrics reference his assassination 50 years ago this week. Since they are from Ireland, U2 put his time of death in early morning rather than in Memphis time of early evening. No matter, the Dr. King message you hear in this song is timeless. That is, the powers of love and righteousness are stronger than hate, even in the face of profound tragedy. 

These sentiments couldn’t be more relevant in these days of heightened racial tensions, even here in Davis and the surrounding region. A few cowardly acts over the past year or so have reminded our community that hate knows no boundaries.

I thought of Dr. King often while I lived in his native city of Atlanta. His childhood home and pastoral home — Ebenezer Baptist Church — are preserved in a historic district. During my years at Georgia Tech, my wife, LeShelle, and I were fortunate to be the neighbors of Dr. King’s eldest son, Martin III.

I thought of Dr. King last August, shortly after we moved to Davis. I was barely two weeks on the job when I was asked to address a unity rally in Central Park. The racial violence seen in Charlottesville was fresh and raw on everyone’s mind.

It felt surreal to denounce Nazis and white supremacists that Wednesday evening as residents sampled fresh fruits at the Farmers Market, listened to a local band and picnicked on the lawn with friends and family. I spoke just a few steps away from the children’s carousel.

We certainly don’t live in a bubble, even in idyllic Davis. Intolerance revisited Davis again in November when anonymous fliers were posted around the UC Davis campus saying, “It’s okay to be white.”

Incidents like these are flashpoints for our community because they aren’t supposed to happen here, not in a city known for its educational achievements and inclusive spirit. But no community is immune.

I enjoy living here, in one of most ethnically diverse regions in the country. People from all over the world settle here to work and raise families, whether they’re from Mexico, Asia, Europe, Africa — or, for that matter, St. Louis, New York and Atlanta, like my family. The student body at UC Davis is more diverse and global than ever. We have more than 2,200 international scholars, and 27 percent of our newest class of undergraduates are ethnic minorities underrepresented in higher education.

I’m fortunate to see the best in our diverse population. I watch students from all walks of life studying side by side, playing sports, sparking friendships and broadening their worlds. Still, our society has miles to go before we reach the mountaintop of harmony and social justice that Dr. King dreamed of and died for.

Many of us in the Sacramento region are hanging our heads in despair and rage following the recent death of Stephon Clark, a 22-year-old unarmed African American man who was killed in his backyard by Sacramento police. A few days after the incident, I walked in my own backyard, wondering what it would be like to not feel safe there.

My hope is that Dr. King’s enduring call for unity can rise above the cacophony of these tense, polarizing times. Plenty more work needs to be done, but I’m reassured to know that I live in a community that strives for tolerance and mutual respect.

Like Dr. King, I am an eternal optimist. In times like these, I am inspired by one of his favored sayings: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

Intolerance will not win.