MLK Interfaith Commemoration
By Liz Magill
January 19, 2023

Thank you, Ayo, and thanks also to Rayane, Zoe, and Elan for helping lead this commemoration. I also want to thank Penn Masti, the Shabbatones, and The Inspiration. They make this event even more memorable. Let’s have a big hand for our student leaders and performers.

I am honored to join you for an evening of reflection, inspiration, and abiding faith. We commemorate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for very good reason. With every passing year, his example seems to grow more relevant, not less. His ministry, more pertinent. His character, more instructive. And his words—well, let’s just say there is only one thing more humbling than sharing a few words about Dr. King, and that is trying to do his words justice. So, I won’t even make the attempt.

I would, however, like to talk about Dr. King’s mind.

There is a concept that’s been around a long time, something philosophers and historians call the problem of is and ought. It’s our tendency to assume that because something is a certain way, it ought to be that way. This fallacy works in reverse, too. If something isn’t already a certain way, then it ought not to be. Throughout history, this failure of moral reasoning has lent stubborn inertia to injustice.

If we bring the is/ought problem to the field of psychology, we can better understand another well-documented phenomenon called anchoring bias. It affects all people to some degree.

Anchoring bias is where we know a previous fact or framework or aspect of society—that’s the anchor. And we weigh what could be—a new situation or a decision—and take action, or choose inaction, based on the anchor. Whether it makes sense to or not. Study after study has demonstrated that this bias is very pervasive. It significantly influences our decision-making.

Even in the world I trained in, the world of law and the courtroom, anchoring bias has been shown to sway the decisions of juries and affect how a judge passes a sentence.

Dr. King lived in a time when the “is,” the anchor, was white supremacy, baked into the legal system, abetted by segregation, discrimination, and lynch mob violence. Even some allies to King’s cause said, ‘Move slowly, temper expectations,’ because injustice was the baseline. In effect, the anchor was so heavy, it warped the world.

But King’s mind, informed by his faith, was in many ways distinctive. His focus was always and entirely on what “ought” to be. To move the cause forward, he dislodged what “is” and disarmed the anchor itself.

It is a rare mind that can do such a thing, that can see past such common fallacies and biases to pursue a different and more righteous path—especially at extreme personal risk. That is one reason why we venerate his example and meditate on why he was so special.

In their own distinctive ways, the people we honor tonight with MLK Community Awards fit that same special mold. I know they will get a full introduction soon, but I personally want to thank them by name. Congratulations to:

  • Herman Beavers
  • Paulette Branson
  • Jasmine Brown
  • Mya Gordon
  • Melany Nelson
  • And Joe Nock

I also want to thank our keynote speaker, Nipun Mehta. He’s another leader who, instead of seeing immovable obstacles, finds new paths to better, more loving, more peaceful life for all.

Dr. King’s work continues. The need continues. And so the world continues to need the spirit, the faith, the minds, and the example set by these leaders. Penn stands by you and shares your commitment to this all-important work. Thank you, and, please, enjoy the program.