SUNY Downstate Medical Center
Office of Diversity & Inclusion
Second Annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Leadership Award
Leadership Award Menu
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr
His call for direct action through non violent civil disobedience has forever shaped American civil rights law and international human rights law.
Why We Can't Wait
On January 24, Downstate paid homage to the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., at the presentation of the 2nd Annual Martin Luther King, Jr., Leadership Award. Sponsored by the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, this year's award went to the Reverend Al Sharpton, founder and president of the National Action Network and host of MSNBC's PoliticsNation. The first recipient of the award, in 2012, was H. Carl McCall, chairman of the State University of New York Board of Trustees.
The theme of this year's event, "Why We Can't Wait," was taken from Dr. King's famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail." In his welcoming remarks, Kevin Antoine, JD, chief diversity officer and the creative and organizing force behind the MLK Leadership Award, explained that the letter was written in answer to a group of clergymen who had criticized Dr. King for engaging in nonviolent protest against the city's segregation laws. Calling his campaign "unwise and untimely", they urged him to wait for local leaders or the courts to make reforms. But Dr. King responded, "This 'Wait' has almost always meant 'Never'."
Students from nearby Parkside Preparatory Academy at Middle School 2 paid close attention as Mr. Antoine recalled what it was like for him to grow up in the segregated South. He described the friendship between his father and Medgar Evers (the African-American civil rights activist murdered for his efforts to end segregation in Mississippi), which informed his own involvement in the Civil Rights Movement.
Dr. John F. Williams, President of SUNY Downstate, referenced the conference theme in his remarks, as well. "Our diversity here at Downstate came about because people like Dr. King decided they could not wait to be treated like the majority of Americans," he said. Cautioning that inequities still exist for many Americans in the form of lack of healthcare, education, and opportunity, Dr. Williams concluded with words from President Obama's recent inaugural address: "We are made for this moment, and we will seize it – so long as we seize it together."
The Reverend Al Sharpton struck similar themes in his keynote address. Born at Kings County Hospital, he recalled growing up in poor but not deprived circumstances. "I didn't know I was underprivileged until I came to Brooklyn College and took a course in sociology," he joked.
At the age of 13, he became youth director of the New York chapter of Operation Breadbasket, the organization founded by Dr. King and other ministers to address economic injustices in the black community. "How did I manage to do this at such a young age?" he asked. "Because no one told me I couldn't."
Reverend Sharpton credited Reverend William Jones, the head of Operation Breadbasket in New York, for giving him his first introduction to the Civil Rights Movement. He also noted that Reverend Jones played an important part in Downstate history when, in 1963, he and other clergy were arrested for protesting the lack of minority workers hired by contractors to build the new University Hospital.
In later years, Reverend Sharpton became a well-known civil rights leader in New York City and founded the National Action Network in 1991. Following a run for the New York State Senate in 1978, he was a candidate for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate from New York in 1992 and 1994, and a candidate for the Democratic nomination for U.S. president in 2004. Also as the host of a nationally syndicated radio program, he continues to advocate for civil and human rights and other causes, including accessible health care.
"We still must deal with the fact that in the most resource-rich country in the world, far too many people don't have adequate healthcare and don't have access to even a culture of health," he said. Recalling his own history of obesity, he asked, "How can you be free politically or economically and enslaved by your diet?"
Addressing the young people in the audience, Reverend Sharpton enjoined them to "choose your own goals and decide to make them, no matter what. Don't let anyone turn you around… If no one is on your side, be on your own side."
And to the adults in the audience, he said, "We must create an environment for them, just as others did for us. We must not crush their hopes and dreams."