University of Michigan
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Symposium
Transforming the Jangling Discords of Our Nation into a Beautiful Symphony
38th Annual Keynote Memorial Lecture featuring Michelle Alexander
January 15, 2024
View the Archived Video on YouTube
As part of a prior agreement, Michelle Alexander has requested that her keynote not be included in the archived video. However, the rest of the show, including the moderated panel with Dr. Alexander, is included.
"With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day"
- from the "I Have a Dream" speech, delivered on August 28, 1963, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial
Essential to the ministry and social justice advocacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr is his belief in the transformative power of faith, hope, and love to mend the rifts in society. In his historic “I Have a Dream” speech, he articulates his dream of racial equality and social and economic justice. The articulated dream includes the iconic quote, "With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood." This statement encapsulates a profound vision of unity, peace, and reconciliation in the face of discord and division. This year’s MLK symposium calls on us to grapple with the nature of the ongoing discord around the globe, and to examine our role as individuals and members of society to create a world where harmony is possible.
Through this quote Dr. King reveals three essential elements to achieve the envisioned beautiful symphony, 1) transformation, 2) elimination of discord, and 3) the creation of harmony. In examining this quote, it is apparent that Dr. King believes that more than finite changes are needed in society, but there needs to be a transformation that fundamentally changes the functioning of our society. A study of Dr. King’s ministry highlights key areas in which he sees the need for such transformation; the identified “discords” include poverty, racism, and militarism.
Borrowing from Dr. King’s final book, “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?” the King Center defines “the triple evils; the discords that must be made right" as:
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Unemployment, homelessness, hunger, malnutrition, illiteracy, infant mortality, slums…
“There is nothing new about poverty. What is new, however, is that we now have the resources to get rid of it. The time has come for an all-out world war against poverty … The well off and the secure have too often become indifferent and oblivious to the poverty and deprivation in their midst. Ultimately a great nation is a compassionate nation. No individual or nation can be great if it does not have a concern for ‘the least of these.”
Prejudice, apartheid, ethnic conflict, anti-Semitism, sexism, colonialism, homophobia, ageism, discrimination against disabled groups, stereotypes…
“Racism is a philosophy based on a contempt for life. It is the arrogant assertion that one race is the center of value and object of devotion, before which other races must kneel in submission. It is the absurd dogma that one race is responsible for all the progress of history and alone can assure the progress of the future. Racism is total estrangement. It separates not only bodies, but minds and spirits. Inevitably it descends to inflicting spiritual and physical homicide upon the out-group.”
War, imperialism, domestic violence, rape, terrorism, human trafficking, media violence, drugs, child abuse, violent crime…
“A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war- ‘This way of settling differences is not just.’ This way of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
Through his sermons, speeches and writings, Dr. King proposes methods by which the transformation of these discords can be achieved and maps the steps toward harmony. King’s chords of harmony are amplified in his speech at Ohio Northern University in 1968, they include intentional activism, vigorous legislation, and reparation and reconciliation.
Intentionality and Activism:
“Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God. Without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. So it is necessary to help time and to realize that the time is always ripe to do right.”
Legislation and the Rule of Law:
“It may be true that morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law can't change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law can't make a man love me, but it can restrain him from lynching me, and I think that's pretty important also. So while the law may not change the hearts of men, it does change the habits of men if it is vigorously enforced. When you begin to change the habits of people, attitudinal changes begin to take place, and they begin to adjust in an amazing way to things that they never thought they could adjust to, and I've seen this over and over again. There is still a need for vigorous legislation, and legislation that's strongly enforced to deal with many of our social problems.”
Reparation and Reconciliation:
“Through centuries of denial, centuries of neglect, and centuries of injustice many, many Negroes have been left bootless. This does not mean that we do nothing for ourselves. It does not mean that we should not amass our economic and political resources to reach our legitimate goals. It simply means recognizing, the nation recognizing, that it owes a great debt on the basis of the injustices of the past.”
Despite progress since King's time, discord, and division continue to exist in society. Issues related to race, social justice, and inequality persist, making his vision as relevant as ever. King's use of the metaphor of a "beautiful symphony" suggests that to achieve the unity he sought, all of us, like each musical instrument in the symphony, have a role to play in creating this harmonious society.
Today we ask that you ponder how you and the communities in which you live can address the discords of political polarization, social disparities, cultural and ethnic divisions, and violence. How can you contribute through education, policy, discourse, and activism to achieve the harmony to which Dr. King calls us: