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Vol. LXII, No. 2
January 22, 2010

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King’s Lessons Are Not Past, but Present

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More than 40 years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the country has surely come a long way. However, as the keynote speaker of the NIH presentation to observe the civil rights leader’s birthday pointed out, there is much work to be done.

The NIH event celebrating King’s life and work was kicked off by a performance by musicians from the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz and headlined by author and sociologist Dr. Michael Eric Dyson.


  Dr. Michael Eric Dyson gives the keynote lecture at NIH’s annual King celebration.  
  Dr. Michael Eric Dyson gives the keynote lecture at NIH’s annual King celebration.  

NIH director Dr. Francis Collins opened the event by reflecting on King’s message of service to others.Recalling a famous King quote, Collins said, “We all must decide whether we will walk in the light of creative altruism, or the darkness of destructive selfishness.” Dr. Vivian Pinn, director of the Office of Research on Women’s Health, then introduced the speaker, proudly carrying an autographed copy of Dyson’s second book, a gift she received when they first met on an airplane.

“You’re in for a treat,” she said.

Dyson, a professor of sociology at Georgetown University, is now the author of 16 books, most on topics that reflect on the African-American experience of the last 50 years. He can talk about theology, literature, social justice or the struggles of people of color or meager means with equal passion and expertise. He’s also an ordained minister of the Baptist church who has been described as being a “talented rhetorical acrobat.” He brought all these strengths to bear when he spoke to an enthusiastic crowd on Jan. 7 in Natcher’s main auditorium.
Dr. Eric Dyson NIH director Dr. Francis Collins ORWH director Dr. Vivian Pinn FIC director Dr. Roger Glass
Speaking at the MLK observance on Jan. 7 were (from l) keynoter Dyson, NIH director Dr. Francis Collins, ORWH director Dr. Vivian Pinn and FIC director Dr. Roger Glass.

“They told me I have about 20 to 25 minutes. I usually take that long to warm up,” he said. Then, like a preacher, he continued in a rolling cadence: “I’m going to have to hit the runway and take off. It might be turbulent on the take off, so put your seat belts on ’cause we’re gonna ride high.”

Speaking in front of a backdrop of an image of King, Dyson reminded everyone of the profound legacy of the man who gave his life for the cause of advancing the civil rights of all Americans.
Musicians from the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz entertained at the event.

“I think about the incredible character of this man…[and] the vigilance we should maintain in the absence of his body but the presence of his spirit, to recall the radical challenge that Dr. King delivered to America,” he said. “It is not simply ‘I Have a Dream’ that should be recalled. We have to remember all of what Dr. King did.”

Dyson urged audience members to speak out against injustice wherever it is found and to push for equality in all aspects of American life.

“We’ve got to challenge the sexism, the homophobia, the ageism,” along with standing up for the rights of the poor and less advantaged, he said. King “was willing to give his blood. He gave up all of his money like few of us will ever do. Sacrificing the way few of us will. He was the moral leader of a nation that refused to accept his humanity and he fought on behalf of those who would never be celebrated.”

His voice rising to a fever pitch, Dyson implored the audience to live King’s message every day and keep vigilant in the struggle to improve the lives of others.

“You and I must work for the day when we can tether hope and courage and make the possibility of transformation the reality of the dream that Dr. King had,” he boomed, adding quietly, “God bless you,” to thunderous applause.

The jazz ensemble played another piece and for closing remarks, Dr. Roger Glass, director of the Fogarty International Center, took the stage.

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard such a magnificent presentation,” he said.

As the event wound to a close, Dyson was surrounded by people who wanted to shake his hand and take his picture.

“This kind of talk leaves you intellectually full. It’s like a good educational meal, a lot of food for thought,” said Leslie Saint-Julien, office manager for the Laboratory of Cellular and Developmental Biology, NIDDK, who was hearing Dyson speak for the second time. “It’s clear the work is not done.” NIHRecord Icon

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