When I accepted the invitation to join the Rutgers community this past January I did not envision greeting my first class of Rutgers students in this way. No one could foresee the simultaneous challenges of a viral pandemic, a long-overdue global moment of racial reckoning, an economy in tatters, and a political atmosphere poisoned with caustic hyperbole and unrelenting efforts to belittle and demean. Those of us in higher education find ourselves profoundly challenged by these circumstances as we do our very best to preserve ideas that transcend time, to honor our commitments to critical inquiry, rigor, and evidence, and to produce research that will help heal the world.
This is a good mission. It is this mission, in fact, that inspired me to pursue a doctorate in History when I entered graduate school 30 years ago. What I did not expect when I started down that path is that I would come to envision the university as a beloved community. I used this phrase when I introduced myself to Rutgers in January and it will be a phrase that you will hear often during your time here. But as much as I think Rutgers is a beloved place, it is important to know that you will have a critical role to play in ensuring that it remains so.
The best way for me to illuminate your role in this place at this fraught moment is to lean on my professional training as a historian who specializes in the post-emancipation United States.
Fifty-seven years and three days ago, Martin Luther King Jr. stood under the stony gaze of Abraham Lincoln and shared his “Dream.” It was the crowning moment of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and it offered a vision of a world where peace and justice and love overwhelmed the divisive forces of violence and insecurity and hate. The march and King’s speech have been memorialized as one of this country’s finest hours. In late August 1963, it appeared that a national moment of racial reckoning had arrived and that we might be guided by our better angels on a path toward equality.
Less than three weeks later, however, that vision was blown to bits as white supremacist terrorists planted dynamite at the entrance to the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The ensuing explosion murdered Addie May Collins, Carol Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Rosamond Robertson—four girls who were in the church basement, putting on their choir robes. Three days later, when Martin Luther King eulogized them, he said that their martyrdom had something to say to everyone: “They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American dream.”1
How had the country come to this crossroads? What was going on in Birmingham? What had transpired that bombings had become commonplace in the city? In 2001, journalist Diane McWhorter set out to answer these questions in her book Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama, the Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution. More specifically, though, McWhorter wanted to answer a searing question in her own past: did her father participate in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church?
McWhorter grew up enjoying the privileges of a sheltered life that was accompanied by domestic servants, excellent schools, and exclusive garden parties. These advantages and the fact that she lived on the other side of a small mountain that separated her pleasant suburban home from downtown Birmingham, shielded her from events that were tearing the city apart. In the years leading up to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, civil rights activists had been embroiled in a legal and economic battle with the city’s power elite and their brute Commissioner of Public Safety, Bull Connor. Those images you’ve seen of fire hoses and German shepherds being used to attack black teenagers? The great majority of those photographs were taken in Birmingham in 1962 and 1963.
But that was not McWhorter’s Birmingham. She was innocent of all the turmoil and violence transpiring less than 15 minutes away. As she reflected:
The summer of 1962 had opened like a hot oven door, but we over-the-mountain children were cool in our valley. I [commuted] between the tiny house on Hoadley Drive and the pool of the Mountain Brook Club. The only hint I got of the parallel public lives being lived came during a shopping excursion my mother and I took downtown to buy my annual white leather sandals. She stopped our car shy of the business district, at Avondale Park, and got out. “Isn’t it a shame,” she said. “They closed the parks.” I looked at the weedy swing sets, but had no idea what she was talking about. “They didn’t want colored people using them,” she explained. It had never occurred to me that people might “use” a public park. Why, when Birmingham had the most beautiful country clubs in the world?2
McWhorter’s innocence is piercing. While the city mayor shut down all public spaces in order to disperse gathering crowds of protestors and while Bull Connor ordered his officers to deploy the German shepherds, because he wanted to “see the dogs work,” teenaged Diane McWhorter was trying to process her discovery that not everyone enjoyed access to the pools and golf courses and country clubs of her daily life.
That same year, the writer James Baldwin published an essay titled “A Letter to My Nephew.” In this letter, Baldwin cast his eye across the landscape of American history and felt obliged to warn his brother’s son of the challenges awaiting him as he moved toward adulthood. He wrote:
I know what the world has done to my brother and how narrowly he has survived it. And I know, which is much worse, [that my countrymen] have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it. One can be, indeed one must strive to become, tough and philosophical concerning destruction and death, for this is what most of mankind has been best at since we have heard of man…. But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.3
For Baldwin, innocence was the issue that had to be addressed. A commitment to not knowing, a reflex to turn quickly away from ugliness, an unyielding faith in purity—these were the forces that combined in grotesque ways and helped perpetuate the deep structural inequities that were undermining the country’s integrity.
It is a hard thing for many to accept, but we must recognize that we are all part of the same dynamic that led a young McWhorter and the cosmopolitan Baldwin to their respective views of the world. Today, we find ourselves living in a moment when a virus has revealed to all of us how deeply fractured our society has been for years. We are living in a moment when ideology—particularly, a commitment to ignoring evidence—is literally making us ill and, in the worst cases, killing our friends and families. We are living in a moment when it is next to impossible to lay a rightful claim to the innocence of not knowing because information is beamed into our smartphones at a pace that has never existed in human history. We cannot help but know. Given all of this, what are we to do?
Institutions like Rutgers have an important role to play in a moment like this. Our scientists can fashion breakthroughs that lead to better diagnostics related to the virus; our social scientists can guide us on matters of public health that can mitigate festering inequities; our humanists can highlight the long histories and complex cultural practices that brought us to this moment and that will lead us out of it. You are now part of this beloved community and you have the opportunity to avail yourself of all of this knowledge that, properly deployed, can heal the world. I know that you can do this since you are part of a generation that is demonstrating a willingness to think in new ways about a society and a planet starving for solutions.
Truth be told, I am already in awe of you and all that you will do to make Rutgers, this state, this nation, and this world better. As you do this work, it is my hope that you will not hide behind the veil of contrived innocence, that you will grant others the grace that is owed to them as they start to discover experiences and views that are new, and that you will seize the opportunity in this incredibly difficult time to do everything you can to learn, to grow, and to imagine.
This is hard work, but I choose to believe that it is the work that you came to Rutgers to do. I cannot wait to see what you accomplish.
Thank you and welcome once again.