Habits of mutuality

Later this week I’ll make my first trip to Newcastle as Ambassador, but I’m already thinking of the city on this holiday because it was the site of a speech by Rev. Martin Luther King that I find inspiring. He delivered it after receiving an honorary degree from Newcastle University in November of 1967.

This was four years after the March on Washington and five months before he was killed. It’s one of my favorites because of a particular passage that offers eternal wisdom to anyone trying to effect change and is also just a pure distillate of his rhetorical genius.

The team at BBC Newcastle and the university have done a marvelous job of editing and formatting the ceremony here.

The odd camera angle and a Dr. King who speaks in a more subdued manner than we’re used to seeing help to put the mythology aside so you can more easily imagine yourself there. The passage begins at about 7:00.

His focus is on racism but his broader subject is the global struggle against racism, poverty, and war. His words, of course, apply to our times too as we contend with persistent poverty, and as the world wrestles with how to help bring an to end violence in Syria and in other parts of the world.

The passage tells us that hearts and mind are hard to change, but the way to start is by changing laws and enforcing them. That way you change the habits that can slowly change attitudes. It also reminds us that as we work through these difficulties we do so knowing that we are connected, or, as he puts it, “inextricably linked in a network of mutuality.”

The World Wide Web wasn’t around then, but for us it’s a real world manifestation of this concept. We see very clearly that our connectedness can be used for good and for bad, and we are engaged in an important debate about how to maximize the good, minimize the bad, and eradicate the worst. And so, while King’s wise words about laws and habits and our mutuality apply to so many things, I think they provide an especially helpful context for President Obama’s speech last Friday.

If you can’t watch the video, here’s the text:

“Well, it may be true that morality cannot be legislated but behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can restrain him from lynching me; and I think that is pretty important also. And so while the law may not change the hearts of men, it does change the habits of men if vigorously enforced, and through changes in habits, pretty soon attitudinal changes will take place and even the heart may be changed in the process. And so that is a challenge and a great one. For all men of good will to work passionately and unrelentingly to get rid of racial injustice, whether it exists in the United States of America, whether it exists in England, or whether it exists in South Africa, wherever it is alive it must be defeated and somewhere along the way, in this sometimes sick and often terribly schizophrenic world, we have got to come to see that the destiny of white and coloured persons is tied together. In a real sense we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.”