On the 50th Anniversary of the death of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., President Gregory J. Vincent ’83 gave a talk in the Vandervort Room about the First Amendment and its link to King’s last speech, the contours of free speech and its impact on academic freedom.
“As we celebrate the life of Dr. King in the 50th year since his death, I thought it would be appropriate to begin with something Dr. King said in what turned out to be his final public address. He said: ‘All we say to America is, be true to what you said on paper,’” said Vincent to the room filled with students, faculty, alums, staff and community members.
Further quoting Dr. King’s reflection on the First Amendment, Vincent added: “‘… somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for rights.’”
Vincent acknowledged the practitioners, scholars and thought leaders who spent their lives immersed in constitutional law, including civil rights champion and attorney, the late William T. Coleman Jr. who was part of the Brown v. Board of Education legal team. Vincent’s talk also addressed the impact on the progression of free speech cases.
“What you’ll see is that time after time the Supreme Court has upheld the right of academic freedom in higher education,” Vincent said. “Despite challenges from the government to curtail that speech, the Supreme Court has said this is fundamental to who and what we are and to the free pursuit of knowledge.”
Vincent spoke about the past and present impact of the First Amendment on college campuses, including Kent State and Jackson State, as well as the tragic events that took place at Charlottesville, Va., and on the University of Virginia campus in the summer of 2017.
He concluded his address returning to the sentiments of Dr. King’s last speech, held in Memphis, Tenn., following the deaths of sanitation workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker. In that speech, Dr. King proposed a number of tactics that could be employed to show support, including the cultivation of what he called “dangerous unselfishness.”
Vincent said: “We must be awake to the needs of others and put our bodies and souls into motion on their behalf. We must exercise our First Amendment rights so that America continually, truly, comprehensively lives up to what it says on paper. What are you doing for others? That question calls each of us to be, as Dr. King was, what he called a drum major for justice, a drum major for peace, a drum major for righteousness. Let us develop a dangerous unselfishness.”
During the program, Vincent paid tribute to the work of Geneva NAACP President Lucile Mallard L.H.D. ’15 and the late Rosa Blue P’72, P’77, P’84, P’84, L.H.D.’12. The event also included Sadeek Walker ’18, the Colleges’ Upsilon Pi chapter president of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, who introduced Vincent. Associate Director of Annual Giving Chevanne DeVaney ’95, P’21, who is a member of the Geneva’s Martin Luther King Committee, delivered the welcome remarks.
Vincent’s talk was followed by a question-and-answer session with the audience covering a range of topics, including free speech and academic freedom. An announcement article about Vincent’s talk appeared on the front page of the Jan. 23 issue of the Finger Lakes Times.