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February 3, 1997

Speaker urges audience to take up King's 'struggle'

By Francine Tyler

A celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.'s life may rightfully honor the civil rights leader for possessing "greater courage and sense of sacrifice than most of us," said Harvard University scholar Cornel West in a recent UCSC lecture. But, he added, his legacy is better viewed in the context of an ongoing struggle for social justice.

"We're not here to put him on some kind of pedestal that's far removed from where we are," said West, the keynote speaker at UCSC's Martin Luther King Jr. Convocation on January 27. "Martin was a wave in an ocean. It's difficult to talk about him without talking about the tradition of struggle of which he was a part--a struggle for decency and dignity, a struggle for freedom and democracy, a struggle for excellence and elegance."

A professor of the philosophy of religion and African-American Studies at Harvard University, West has written a number of books on race and race relations, including the bestseller Race Matters. Before a capacity audience of more than 500 people at the Performing Arts Mainstage Theater, he called on his audience to join the tradition of struggle. He predicted dire consequences if people of all races and backgrounds don't come together with courage, a willingness to sacrifice, a true knowledge of history, and hope.

"Martin Luther King did not believe America could easily wrestle with the problem of evil, but had to take a risk," West said. "He had come from a tradition of struggle that said faith is a matter of stepping out on nothing and landing on something. He also knew that no matter what happened to him, the world was still incomplete and history was still open-ended."

King would not recognize America if he were here to see it today, West said. He wasn't alive to see the cultural decay in America's cities, with "families shattered, communities shattered, and neighborhoods turning into 'hoods.'

"Martin Luther King didn't see the impoverishment, the alienation, the mean-spiritedness, and the cold-spiritedness of the 1980s and '90s," West said. "If he saw it, he'd say 'I didn't think it would go that far.' He would say, 'I find it hard to believe that non-market values like kindness and sweetness and gentleness and tenderness would be pushed to the margin.'"

King would advocate a "kind of revolution" to overcome today's problems, said West. Such an upheaval would require not only that people view themselves and others with compassion and empathy, but that they transform the economic structure. Added West, this country's "corporate and banking elite" must be held accountable for an economy in which salaries are stagnant and many remain terminally unemployed while CEO compensation skyrockets.

"If we are at a moment in which corporate and managerial greed is able to run amok when resources are necessary for some very basic social goods, such a democracy will never ever survive," West said. "Poverty and near-poverty will generate such levels of despair, and there will never be enough police and prisons. Distrust and paranoia will deepen in such a way ... that will never allow the body politic to stay afloat."

West closed his speech by noting that King left the world a better place than he had found it.

"Brother Martin left some heaven behind," West said. "The question for us now is how much heaven we're willing to leave behind; how much justice we're willing to fight for; how much democracy we're willing to sacrifice for. That's the challenge. For those of us willing to meet the challenge, I will be there with you, and I am going down with a smile."

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