(Comments delivered on a portion of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech as part of the Loyola Stritch School of Medicine celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington.)
“We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God’s children. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
History is a funny thing. When we are living it, matters of right and wrong can seem unclear. People expect there to be two valid sides to each issue. Pro-slavery and anti-slavery, segregation and de-segregation, antimiscegenation and freedom to marry whom one loves have all been debated as if there are two sides and it was hard to definitely assert which position was correct.
But with the passage of history, as we examine the issues with the tincture of time, we see that there was always the just position v. injustice, prejudice, and discrimination. Because justice is so much clearer in retrospect, Dr. King has elsewhere spoken of the long arc of history and assured us that it bends toward justice. As a result, many counsel “going slow” in matters of social change. By going slowly, we might minimize hurt feelings and conflicts with those close to us. But, in this speech, Dr. King highlights the “fierce urgency of now” and asserts that “Now is the time to throw open the doors of opportunity to all God’s children.”
We have faced such a situation and have risen to the challenge of the NOW. We have thrown open the doors of Stritch to applicants who are known as Dreamers. They are undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as small children, were raised and educated here, and have become vital members of our society. They are Americans in every way but on paper. We have become the first medical school in the nation to declare that these people are welcome to apply and to compete on their merits for admission.
Most members of the Loyola community have been supportive of this decision and understand how history will judge. A few have been vociferously opposed and chosen to end their relationship with our community. However, a number of others have expressed disappointment that we were not more patient. They claim that to go first among medical schools is grandstanding and that we should just wait for immigration reform to be enacted by our government. Then we could allow these students to apply. What could be wrong with that counsel? Why isn’t that simply prudence?
We cannot wait for history. While going slow might seem prudent so as not to alienate members of our community who do not see the justice of our decision, we cannot do so for two reasons. First, each year that we do not throw open the doors of opportunity, we consign the medical careers of another group of these applicants to the scrap heap. Young people cannot wait forever but must move on with their lives. So, while we wait year after year, their talents would be lost to the medical profession and to the patients they would serve. We would not only fail the potentially successful applicants, but we would fail patients in need. Even more damning, there is no neutral place to which we could retreat while we waited for justice to prevail. If we didn’t throw open the door of opportunity, it would be our hands that continued to bolt that door. It would be us who continued to respond to the inquiries of Dreamers with nonsensical reasons as to why they could not apply. It would be us who continued to discriminate against fully qualified applicants. It would be us who were the purveyors of injustice. We will not do these things.
When you hear those powerful closing words of Dr. King’s speech, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” know that the movement we commemorate today did not just free those who were oppressed. It made us all aware that we could also choose to be free from being the oppressor. We are free to treat all of our neighbors as God’s children. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.
The Fr. Michael I. English, SJ, Professor of Medical Ethics