64 Parishes

After Katrina: “It’s time somebody woke us up.”

Published: August 14, 2015
Last Updated: August 29, 2022

After Katrina: “It’s time somebody woke us up.”

Editor’s Note: Wynton Marsalis delivered the below speech at Tulane University on January 16, 2006, at an event sponsored by the consortium of Tulane, Xavier, Dillard, and Loyola Universities, followed by a jazz concert accompanied by his father, Ellis Marsalis, and fellow musician Irvin Mayfield. 

It’s good to be home. It’s especially good to be home in a time of crisis because tough times force us to return to fundamentals. And there is nothing more fundamental than home. Many of you are visitors to New Orleans, but it won’t take four years for the Crescent City to be forever in your blood. So I feel in a way, that we are all home tonight.

I also feel a special honor in speaking to you on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Day because it was Dr. King’s tireless activism that fostered our modern way of relating to one another. Yes, we are here tonight empowered with the feeling that if we want to we can speak truthfully to one another. We can work together. We can rely on one another because Dr. King’s actions made his dream our reality, and this rebuilding of New Orleans gives us the perfect opportunity to see if we’re ready to extend the legacy of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement.

Look around this room and realize that the final chapter of that movement still waits for a generation with the courage to write it. That’s why I say we are all home tonight. We are all home because Dr. King led the charge to victory over regressive, ignorant traditions that had long gone unchallenged . . . because he was unwavering in presenting compelling arguments to make real the promises of the Constitution . . . because he never succumbed to hopelessness and showed us what one citizen can achieve when armed with an evangelical zeal for freedom and a first-class education. It is most fitting to re-open our city’s finest institutions of higher education on the day we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Though he is almost always reduced to a dreamer today, Dr. King was an achiever, a most powerful exemplar of action. His last book is entitled Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? It is a question that is most appropriate for us in this moment.

Dr. King worked in the shadow of slavery and discrimination. We are in the shadow of the worst natural disaster to ever befall America. What better way to celebrate him than by rising to a challenge?

His challenge was to reverse 80 years of legalized apartheid — a veritable way of life in our land of freedom. Our challenge is merely to rebuild a great city in times of unbelievable political callousness and corruption. Even in these times there are still neighbors that will turn their backs on neighbors. Yes, this is Louisiana, and we are home tonight.

Through a tireless single-minded campaign to expose lies and sanctioned injustice, Dr. King never lost faith in the ability of humans to behave better. He didn’t settle. He succeeded. Certainly his single-mindedness is what is required of us, at this time, to rebuild New Orleans. Don’t settle. Succeed.

Catchy slogans aside, when we look around here, we see destruction, anguish, and uncertainty. Let’s look deeper into ourselves and find possibility. That’s why it’s important to mark the reopening of New Orleans. It’s good to be home. It’s especially good to be home in a time of crisis because tough times force us to return to fundamentals. And there is nothing more fundamental than home. Many of you are visitors to New Orleans, but it won’t take four years for the Crescent City to be forever in your blood. So I feel in a way, that we are all home tonight, with the triumphant return of Tulane, Xavier, Loyola and Dillard Universities. Through first-class education, a generation marches down the long uncertain road of the future with confidence. After all is said and done, education’s purpose is to lead students to who they are, what they can be, and who they want to be. The best way to be, is to do. And when we pass on the best of what we do, that is quality education.

If we’re lucky, we only have a good 80 years or so on this earth, and through education, those 80 are extended through the generations that follow. Look around: Paul Tulane put his life into this campus over 120 years ago. It’s still here — inviting us tonight. I spent many a night as a high school student in the Tulane Library. It’s here for us now, and will be here for young people looking for knowledge to define themselves and their time long after we’re all gone.

That’s why it’s important to address young people in the reopening of New Orleans — you have always been at the forefront of social change. In rebuilding, let’s revisit the potential of American democracy and American glory when its citizens are mobilized to enlightened action. The soldiers in Martin Luther King’s army were people demanding change — lawyers, clerks, politicians, housewives, businessmen, maids, clergymen. The ones on the frontlines were America’s youth.

Young people, much like you, who felt empowered to better our nation . . . who understood that change required sacrifice . . . who were emboldened with a spirit of rightness and were determined to create change for the betterment of our country.

That is why, as I stand before you tonight, I say the best way to be, is to do. Don’t settle for style. Succeed in substance. [Tulane University] President Cowen said “don’t come back if helping restore New Orleans is not in your DNA,” and 91 percent of you Tulane students have returned. Most of you have returned at a time when many would have stayed away. And now that you are here, you have the opportunity to set a new tone, not only for New Orleans, but for our country. Remember, many a revolution started with the actions of a few. For example, only 56 men signed the Declaration of Independence of which Ben Franklin said, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” A few hanging together can lead a nation to change.

You know, we love to patronize young people with slogans like “the young will lead the way” — when actually, the young very seldom lead anything in our country today. It’s been quite some time since a younger generation pushed an older one to a higher standard. My daddy thought — no, he expected — that my brothers and I and our generation would make the world a better place. He was correct in his belief because he had lived in an America of continual social progress. Depression followed by prosperity, segregation by integration, and so on.

And though I haven’t quite pinpointed it, somewhere between my daddy’s youth and mine, generational aspirations for a richer democracy changed to aspirations for a richer me — more wealth and more leisure time for a lower quality of work. Oh, and forget about our political process. Voting became too much of a bore — let alone keeping an eye on how our tax dollars were being squandered or how our interests were being poorly served by our elected officials.

When did we begin to lose faith in our ability to effect change? Perhaps the demoralizing murders of John and Robert Kennedy, and MLK scared the civic-minded young people of the 1960s right out of their idealism into despair and then, to indifference. Perhaps it was the 1980s when the “opportunity” inherent in the American Dream was distorted from the land of “we” to the land of “to hell with anybody else but me.” Maybe the preoccupation with technological progress has overshadowed our concern with human progress. In any case, the result of this social inactivity is that generations are now named simply for the last letters of the alphabet. And these alphabet-named people are distinguished by the ability to manipulate new technology, buy new things with money they have not earned and be obsessed with the trivial lives of celebrities. But I know you’re more than that.

We have the tendency to make generations unanimous. But in fact, there really have only ever been a few people in each generation who step out, are willing to put themselves on the line, and risk everything for their beliefs. Only a few act . . . the rest of us reap the benefits of their risk.

Yes, I always laugh when people my age complain about their college-age and teenage kids by talking about how much better we were. I laugh because I have absolutely no idea what my generation did to enrich our democracy. What movement have we been identified with that forced our elders to keep their promises … that challenged their failures or built upon their successes? For me, we dropped the ball after the Civil Rights Movement. We entered a period of complacency and closed our eyes to the very public corruption of our democracy.

As we have seen our money squandered and stolen, our civic rights trampled, and the politics of polarity become the order of the day, we have held absolutely no one accountable. From us, you inherit an abiding helplessness. If you realize the unfortunate consequences of inaction, hopefully you will understand even more the importance of holding both your elders and your peers accountable when it comes to the rebuilding of New Orleans. Stay up on the facts.

What, other than injustice, could be the reason that the displaced citizens of New Orleans cannot be accommodated by the richest nation in the world? You, along with the entire world, saw the bureaucratic fumbling and lack of concern inflicted on those very same citizens at the Superdome and the Convention Center. Who is being held accountable now?

Take your example, not from my generation, but from generations — from those few inspired young people — who stood on the front lines and fought injustice throughout the course of our nation’s history. For example, in the first twenty years of the 1900s, youth supported the Progressive Movement to keep farmers from being shafted by big business, as well as the movements for women’s suffrage, worker’s rights, a League of Nations and of course, keeping alcohol legal. The next 20 years would see the repeal of Prohibition, and young people pushing for the establishment of Social Security, and unemployment insurance. Young people vowed to fight Fascism with the Lincoln Brigades and also vowed not to fight old folks’ wars by taking the Oxford Oath. The 1940s began with young people fighting the “Good War.” The 50s saw young folks involved in tearing down the laws that supported segregation, challenging parental tastes and authority with rock-and-roll, and questioning conformity with the Beatniks.

The 60s and 70s saw youth challenging Vietnam, the role of women, rituals of courtship, race relations, and the political process itself. Today, we still reap the benefits of these generations’ successes and suffer losses from their failures.

The rebuilding of New Orleans is an important point in the history of the United States. Should my generation expect yours to be the watchdogs of this effort? Should we expect you to monitor how our leaders handle this responsibility to restore our city? Well, my generation might not — because we have not been very good watchdogs ourselves. But I do. I expect you to be different than the example we’ve set for you.

Don’t wish for someone else to do later what you can do now. When you perceive a problem, instead of speaking about it in dorm rooms or in hushed corners of bars or loudly in bars. Put together a group of friends and be loud and public in your dissent.

When you notice inconsistencies between what is said by government officials and what is done, exercise your individual and collective power to take steps to remove them. Our form of democracy allows you to do that. Remember, the best way to be, is to do. What are you going to do?

Well, when it comes to the rebuilding of New Orleans, start with the President. He stood in Jackson Square and told the nation that he would rebuild New Orleans and fix the levees. When public outrage was at its highest and his popularity was nearing its lowest, let’s remember that he put Karl Rove in charge of the reconstruction effort. That was in September. Has anyone seen or heard from Karl Rove? Hmmm . . . In the opening days of this New Year, the President reiterated that the levees will be fixed. Yes, money has been appropriated. But is it enough? The task has been assigned. People have been put in charge. But are they going to take care of it? Are they waiting for people — like you — to stop paying attention?

Now is the time for your generation to reclaim the energy, optimism, and fire that is the real American spirit. I am confident that you students can, and will, make an incalculable contribution to the intelligent and compassionate rebuilding of our city and protection of our dispersed populace. In doing so, you will be using your collective power to redefine the soul of our nation. You know, democracy is a can-do form. We always hear about the rights of democracy, but the major responsibility of it is participation. Throughout American history, we have seen causes for the betterment of democracy invigorated by young people unafraid to fight for the general welfare of all, even if it meant alienation from their own families.

Don’t be disheartened by the destruction of the hurricane or by political ineptitude or even by the apathy of others. Remember, we are all home. That is why I urge you not to let this moment pass without sending a clear message to your peers and elders around the world, “New Orleans will be rebuilt, and it will be rebuilt with an intensity, with an intelligence, with an impatience and with a freshness that only serious minded young people can bring.” One of the great lessons of the Civil Rights Movement: when the minds and hearts of enough citizens are focused on change, America changes very quickly.

I know that the challenge of rebuilding may seem insurmountable. But we have a roadmap to success — the path of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Because he didn’t settle for “that’s just the way things are,” we don’t have to. Because he led an intelligent assault on all sorts of sanctioned corruption, we too can use our intelligence to protect and project integrity.

Because he understood that all human beings are of one race long before the discovery of the DNA strain, we can now live that reality. Because Dr. King was always about the business of making real the human grandeur outlined in the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights, we can still believe that our government can be of the people, by the people, and for the people. Let’s concentrate our energies to that end.

You will hear that the most immediate concerns for New Orleans are the wetlands, the levees and the homes. But I’m here to tell you that the most immediate concern for New Orleans is the well-being of our displaced neighbors spread out in a Diaspora all over the United States.

Look around the room. I want you all to understand that there are forces all around you who wish to exploit division, rob you of your freedom, and tell you what to think. They are afraid of change — some of these forces are even within you. But I’m here to tell you, when young folks are motivated to action, when they act with insight, soul and fire, they can rekindle the weary spirit of a slumbering nation. It’s time somebody woke us up.


Wynton Marsalis is a trumpeter, composer, bandleader, educator and Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York.