Forum Chair, 1997
Good afternoon. I am Bob Schreiner, and I bring greetings from the UNC Employee Forum. The Employee Forum represents over 6500 staff Employees of the University, from computer technicians to groundskeepers, secretaries to accountants, housekeepers to librarians, department managers to office assistants. In the capacity of chair, I am honored and pleased to be here today.
Any study of Dr. King’s career reveals his deep respect for learning and learned people. His “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” draws sustenance from such diverse learned people as the Apostle Paul, Socrates, Martin Buber, Paul Tillich, St. Augustine, Reinhold Niebuhr, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson. It is truly fitting that we recognize Dr. King in a University setting, since he gained much from the theoretical underpinnings that buttressed his faith.
Yet, there have been many learned people. What distinguished Martin Luther King’s great glory was his use of ideas of the past to clarify and focus the struggles of his day. Urgency and passion are the hallmark of his writings and speeches; yet, his words speak to us today not just because of his erudition or his indispensable relationship with God. Dr. King commands the respect of history because of his uncompromising, insightful witness of American racial and economic injustice.
It is easy to believe he was a prophet, given what we know today. Here are his prescient words, from his book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?:
He wrote: “..We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing”-oriented society to a “person”-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered. A civilization can flounder as readily in the face of moral and spiritual bankruptcy as it can through financial bankruptcy.
This revolution of values must go beyond traditional capitalism and Communism. We must honestly admit that capitalism has often left a gulf between superfluous wealth and abject poverty, has created conditions permitting necessities to be taken from the many to give luxuries to the few, and has encouraged smallhearted men to become cold and consciousless so that, like Dives before Lazarus, they are unmoved by suffering, poverty-stricken humanity. The profit motive, when it is the sole basis of an economic system, encourages a cutthroat competition and selfish ambition that inspire men to be more I‑centered. Equally, Communism reduces men to a cog in the wheel of the state.”
Writing 30 years ago, a year before his death, Dr. King anticipates a burning issue of today: the growing gap between rich and poor here and abroad. He anticipates the arrogance of corporate executives planning layoffs in times of prosperity:
He wrote: “A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look at thousands of working people displaced from their jobs with reduced incomes as a result of automation while the profits of the employers remain intact, and say: ‘This is not just.’”
Among Dr. King’s final public acts was his campaign in protest of economic injustice.
This last year, both the University and the town of Chapel Hill have made great strides towards addressing these longstanding issues, and are to be commended for their vision and actions. We should hope and work for continued improvements, and encourage our brethren in business and industry to follow their lead. We must not homogenize the legacy of Dr. King nor blunt the force of his ideals in order to placate the comfortable.
One of the continuing interests of the Employee Forum is to promote and facilitate the educational opportunities of our great University to all Employees. Whether seasoned middle managers or newly hired housekeepers, all Employees who so desire should be able to take advantage of the University’s extensive educational opportunities to seek new skills and knowledge leading to promotion and economic betterment.
What person of conscience would deny Dr. King’s charge (he wrote): “There is nothing to keep us from remolding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.”
Thank you for your invitation to be here today.
(Remarks to students at MLK Day, 1997)