Friday, January 13, 2017

MLK Day 2017 Speech at Casady School: Dr. Belinda Biscoe

Casady Remarks on the Occasion of
Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday
January 9, 2017

Good morning, before sharing my remarks with you, I want to first thank Carmen Clay for extending this invitation to serve as your speaker for this special occasion as we celebrate the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. I must tell you that this feels more like old home week for me as opposed to me visiting as an outsider. My two daughters attended Casady for pre-school and elementary school. They are both bright, talented and successful young women. One is a cognitive psychologist working as Director of Research, Innovation, and Policy at the Atlanta Speech School in Atlanta, GA. My other daughter just opened her medical practice in Broomfield, Colorado.  I am confident that their early education at Casady helped prepare them for success in life and their careers. So thank you Casady teachers, administrators, and others who touched their early lives.

I now want to take this opportunity to share three points this morning about the importance of this holiday and Dr. King. First, I want you to know why this day is of significance to me personally and professionally. Next, I want to share lessons that we can learn from Dr. King’s life and legacy. In addition, I want to leave you with a charge to apply these lessons to your life and journey.

So, why does Dr. King’s life mean so much to me personally and professionally? As an African American baby boomer born in Atlanta, Georgia during the days of segregation and Jim Crow laws, my memories of life in a segregated world are poignant. As most of you know, Jim Crow laws required the segregation of blacks and whites in public places. Blacks were also denied the right to vote in elections.

I want to share a few stories from my personal journey to provide context from the past. These personal stories also provide a window to help you, as students, understand what motivates me as a social justice advocate for all groups. With painful and bitter experiences, we have two choices, one is to harbor resentments, which destroy us, or we can choose to reframe these experiences in transformative ways to make a difference in the world.

With that said, let me begin. My common education experiences, K-12 were in segregated schools. I was grateful that my parents were college educated and most of the blacks in my neighborhood were educated. Because all of our neighborhoods were segregated, some people in my neighborhood were wealthy and lived in mansions, most were middle class like my family, and a few were very poor and on welfare. What we had in common was our race, which determined where we all could live, where we could go to school, what public restrooms we use, including what public spaces we could access or use. As a child, my parents were avid moviegoers. I remember sitting in the balcony of the movie theater, or as it was called in those days, the buzzard’s roost, since African Americans were not allowed to sit on the main theater floor. I remember as a child, climbing, what seemed like hundreds of stairs, behind the theater before reaching the top. African Americans looked out from the balcony over a sea of white people who sat below on the main floor of the theater.

I remember how much I loved the state fair as a child. On one trip to the state fair with my dad, sister and brother, I remember walking under a tram ride above us only to be spat on by white kids on the ride. They all laughed hysterically. When we asked my daddy, as we say in the South, whether we should report these kids to the authorities, he simply said we would be the ones arrested. I remember how sad and helpless I felt.

If we still lived in a segregated world, it is very unlikely that my daughters would have been able to attend Casady, although it is a private school. These doors of access and opportunity were often denied in public and private spaces. I remember being denied access to the arts in public places. As black students, we were allowed to attend the symphony only once a year. On this day, we wore our best clothes to school and buses transported us across the city to the symphony.

I remember learning to swim in my 20s because Blacks were not allowed to go to public parks.

As an older baby-boomer, fortunately or unfortunately, I found myself trekking through time when my peers and I were often the first to open painfully closed doors. I remember being elected homecoming queen at my high school and while most young women would consider this an exciting honor, my election was fraught with anxiety and stress. You ask why. The city of Atlanta and the State of GA decided to have the first inter-racial football game in the history of GA. Of course, the game was held at the white high school stadium. I remember walking in the stadium and seeing police officers with cocked rifles on both ends of every bleacher. To this day, I have never attended a football game this quiet.
Whether you were a black or white kid, we were afraid to utter a word, let alone a shout.  Our team won and I still cherish the football, which the captain of our team gave to me after the game. This game occurred decades ago; but I remember this as though it were yesterday. (Show football)

When the first semester of my freshman year ended, I flew home from Nashville. As my plane landed in Atlanta and I headed to catch a taxi home I remember seeing right before my eyes, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I was mesmerized, but somehow mustered the courage to approach him there in the Atlanta airport. I thanked him for his amazing work and his courage in the name of social justice.  He reached out to shake my hand with his head bowed and unbelievable humility. I still remember thinking how surprised he seemed that I recognized him and acknowledged his contributions to us all. Several months after that hand shake, Dr. King was assassinated and my campus along with many other erupted in riots. A building on my campus was burned to the ground and the National Guard was deployed to Nashville. I remember looking out of my dorm window as a national guardsman shot out the streetlights.

These were painful and stressful times, forever emblazoned in my mind, heart, and soul. These experiences in the Deep-South during my formative years coupled with the generation of baby-boomers I was born into, as well as, my family and community shaped who I am today.

These experiences fueled my desire for social activism. Therefore, with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as a pre-teen, I remember going into inner-city neighborhoods registering African Americans to vote. I vote in every election and even voted by absentee ballot in college.

I mentioned earlier important lessons I have taken from Dr. King’s life based on my journey and life. These are lessons you, too, can take from his life. While there are many lessons, I will highlight a few---

  • When you hit barriers and challenges to your dreams do you persevere or do you give up---I say to you persevere-I could have fallen victim to a society that said I was less than because of the color of my skin, instead I chose to pursue my dream to become a research psychologist and today I have been appointed by President Boren as the first African American female Vice President at OU.

  • Another lesson from Dr. King—He once said It is not possible to  be in favor of justice for some people and not be in favor of justice for all people—So, the lesson here is always stand on the right side of justice. Even when it is difficult.

The last comments I want to share are important messages from Dr. King—

  • First, treat every human with dignity and respect regardless of differences-Every major religion speaks to doing unto others as you would have them do unto to you—In fact Dr. King urged us to judge people by the content of their character and not the color of their skin or any other differences.

  • Lead an ethical life—An ethicist I met once said, “The real test of ethics is our willingness to loose—This is shown by holding to core beliefs, principles, and practices, and the courage and strength to honor those beliefs and principles, despite peer pressure and despite personal, social, or economic pressures”; and a final lesson is to

  • Commit to civic engagement- Despite the unfair world and mean-spirited world that I grew up in, at a young age, I promised myself to reframe those experiences and to use my life as a vessel to promote social change and to use my personal and professional life to improve the quality of life for others. While I have a plethora of examples I could share with you, I will share one. I am the founder and conceptual framer of Positive Tomorrows, a school for homeless youth and their families. I knew that homeless children in the 80s were not being educated and that their families needed interventions and support services to address root causes of their homelessness. Consequently, in 1989 I brought together close to 50 stakeholders from around Oklahoma City to address this issue. The road was rocky. I received the initial funding to launch Positive Tomorrows from outside of our Oklahoma. This year Positive Tomorrows will celebrate its 28th anniversary. In talking to Carmen, I know that many of you volunteer time and resources to support this school. Thanks for what you do to keep this dream alive. I have always chosen to be a servant leader.

In closing, I will leave you with a quote that I have always found very meaningful to me. Unfortunately, I have never been able to find who deserves attribution for this quote. The quote is this—You cannot choose your ancestors, but neither can your descendants. So, I want you to leave this morning asking this question-- What will your descendants say about the kind of ethical and just world you left for them? Follow Dr. King’s dream of a just world for us all.

Thank you—
Belinda Biscoe, Ph.D.
The University of Oklahoma