Speakers

J.R. Martinez urges continued activism during Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration

Isabelle Marmur | Contributing Photographer

Jose Rene “J.R.” Martinez, the keynote speaker for this year's Syracuse University Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration, addressed issues of racial inequality inside the Carrier Dome on Sunday night for the university’s 32nd annual King celebration.

J.R. Martinez said that while he has seen progress with racial equality in the United States, he believes there is still a long way to go.

Martinez, the keynote speaker for this year’s Syracuse University Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration, addressed issues of racial inequality as he spoke in front of about 1,600 people crowded around tables set up inside the Carrier Dome on Sunday night for the university’s 32nd annual King celebration.

SU Chancellor Kent Syverud, who spoke Sunday in a video shown in the Dome before delivering a short speech in person, said the event remains the largest university-sponsored celebration honoring King in the U.S.

Martinez focused on his life story throughout his speech, recalling his childhood growing up in Hope, Arkansas and how he joined the U.S. Army after high school and was deployed to Iraq. In Iraq, a month into his tour, a Humvee he was driving struck a roadside bomb. He was immediately transported back to the U.S., seriously injured.

Throughout his speech, Martinez linked his own personal struggles mentally and physically following the bombing — and his eventual recovery — to issues he said people in the U.S. continue to face.

He also spoke about the different examples of how he believes equality has improved in the country, pointing to the protests that happened Saturday night at John F. Kennedy International Airport in response to President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration.

“That is an example to me that makes me feel like we’re making progress,” Martinez said. “Because we saw on the news the different races and different cultures and different religions all there together.”

But Martinez also said that people need to continue peacefully demonstrating to enact change.

Syverud, during his pre-recorded message at the event, asked that the university remain engaged on national issues, as he said SU did during 1965, when King gave a speech at the university. At that time, the country was embroiled in a civil rights movement led by King.

“Our challenge today is how we build upon what Dr. King called Syracuse University’s ‘great and noble heritage’ at a challenging moment in our nation’s history,” he said.

Syverud also asked the university community to make an increased devotion to the values King promoted and implement the short- and long-term recommendations from the university’s Workgroup on Diversity and Inclusion, among other things.

Nedda Sarshar, a senior SU student majoring in writing and rhetoric, citizenship and civic engagement and policy studies, thanked Martinez in a short speech at the event while presenting him with a commemorative plate. Sarshar said Martinez’s speech gave her hope and strength, especially now because she has Iranian refugee parents. She subtly referenced Trump’s immigration ban, which affects Iranians.

Taysha Cerisier, a sophomore psychology major, said she was inspired by Martinez because she does not agree with Trump’s actions regarding immigration and his proposal to build a border wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“At the moment where our country is, (Martinez’s speech) felt resonating and it felt like it applied a lot,” she said. “It makes you want to stand up and actually act.”

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