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Niagara Falls Mayor Paul A. Dyster speaking at the “Niagara Homecoming” press conference, Nov. 25, held at the New York State Parks Information Center. The mayor was joined by Niagara Homecoming organizers: Marti Gorman, Colleen Kulikowski and Frank Thomas Croisdale. The homecoming will take place June 25 – 28, 2009 in Niagara Falls, NY.
Former Professor Dyster Praises MLK as World Leader:
“Dr. King convinced the world to love America, warts and all.”
The following is the text of Mayor Dyster remarks at the Martin Luther King Day luncheon held January 21st at the Centre Court Community Center.
Thanks you very much for inviting me here today. I am truly honored to have this opportunity to say a few words about the man we honor today, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and his legacy to America and to the world. It is that latter point–his legacy to the world–that I would like to highlight in my remarks today.
For the first half of my career, I was a college professor. I was privileged to attend the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, and helped pay for school by working there and at the University of Baltimore and the University of Maryland while I was completing my degree. I then settled in at Catholic University of America in downtown Washington, D.C., where I eventually rose to become Director of the Graduate Program in International Affairs, a post I held from 1989 through 1994.
The Catholic University of America draws students not just from around the United States, but from all around the world. It was my greatest pleasure while teaching there to have the opportunity to meet and work with young people from just about every nation and culture around the world. These young people were all interested to come to Washington, D.C. , the capitol city of the richest, most powerful country in the whole world, to see what this United States of America–an almost mythical place they had been hearing about their whole lives–was all about.
Of the Americans whose names they knew and accomplishments they respected, there were several who stood out. These were political science majors, so they knew more about American history and politics than you might expect. And it is generally the case that–precisely because our country is so rich and powerful–people from other countries know a lot more about us than we typically know about them. That is an asset, for our country, but, as I will explain, it is also a burden.
In any event, most of these kids knew about contemporary American presidents like Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, because they were both political figures and media celebrities. All of them knew about celebrities like Mohammed Ali. When it came to the “great men” of American history, there were four people they knew a fair amount about already, and were curious to learn more about: Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King.
When I was teaching international relations to young students, one of the first principles I tried to get across was the importance of trying to see the world the way other people see it. Unless you can get outside of your own narrow perspective and begin to appreciate other ways of looking at the world, you’ll never get very far in the field of international relations.
Can you imagine what is was like for these international students, most of them in their late teens or early twenties, coming to America for the first time? What were their first impressions of the U.S.?
I think in many ways it must have been a shock for them to see the tremendous contradictions of American society laid out before them in Washington, D.C. On the one hand, there was the gleaming marble of the national capitol, the White House, the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, the Washington Monument, and the Smithsonian. This was the America of their sky-high expectations, that “gleaming city on a hill” that Ronald Reagan liked to talk about, the America that set standards for the world to follow. But it is impossible to live in Washington, D.C. without also being exposed to another side of life in the United States of America. Because if you walk half a mile in most directions from the mall, you will find laid out for all the world to see all of the problems that effect modern American cities. You will see what political scientists mean when they say that Thomas Jefferson and the founding fathers made half of the greatest political revolution the world had ever known.
They did some great things, but they left an awful lot of work undone. Abraham Lincoln certainly realized that. John F. Kennedy certainly did. And this sense of work left unfinished, more work always left to be done, was the subject of one of the great metaphors associated with Martin Luther King: the great image of struggling mightily to get to the mountain top, and being able to see the promised land, but knowing that you might not quite be able to get there yourself.
I think the dominant impression that my new students coming to the U.S. must have had was that of a work in progress. We might as well have had a big sign there to greet them saying, “shining city on a hill under construction: pardon our dust.”
People today tend to remember the early high points in Dr. King’s career, but many tend to forget the criticism he took later on for his courage in speaking out about the things he saw as wrong in American society and politics. Many were concerned that by taking on the issues of economic as well as political equality, and international as well as domestic tranquility, he was somehow diluting his message, or disparaging the country because he was pointing out that our great American revolution was still, after all, a work in progress.
In contrast, I would make the case that it was precisely this ability to highlight simultaneously the best and worst things about American society that has elevated Dr. King from the status of an American hero to the status of a world hero. The problem from the world’s perspective with Ronald Reagan’s vision was that he sometimes seemed to be saying that we had already entered the promised land; Dr. King’s message to the world, by contrast, was not that we were already a “shining city on a hill,” but that we aspired to be that shining city on a hill. We were asking the world to recognize, respect and emulate not just, or even principally, our accomplishments, but our ideals. Dr. King convinced the world to love America, warts and all. Without that accomplishment, what happens in Russia–is Gorbachev possible? What happens in South Africa–is Nelson Mandela possible? Martin Luther King helped transform the struggle for justice and equality in the United States into a global struggle, and in the process made the world a much more hopeful place.
The legacy which Dr. Martin Luther King left in the world of international politics is indeed a profound one. First, that no nation, no matter how powerful or respected in the world, is ever perfect. Second, that the fact our country is not perfect should not cause us to love it any less, but rather inspire us to redouble our efforts to help it close the gap between its lofty aspirations and the day-to-day realities we see before us. And finally, that we should all understand that even if we personally never see that promised land to which we all so intensely aspire, we must nonetheless judge ourselves at the end of every day based on what we have contributed to get us all just a little bit closer.