Editor’s Note: What follows is an edited version of opening remarks delivered by the author at the annual Hutchins Forum at the Old Whaling Church on August 20.

At so many universities, black studies and ethnic studies still unfairly are forced to struggle for their existence. But at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard, we are able to focus on creative research and programming because of the financial support of our advisory board, a board conceived by and headed by a man I actually met in this church. I said that the Old Whaling Church was magical; it is. But it is also a place where miracles can occur. And I know that because one day, in this very church after this very event, a tall, lanky white guy walked up to me and said that he had been attending these panel discussions for a few years, he’d been watching what we do, and had decided to direct his donation for his 25th Harvard College Class Reunion to the Du Bois Institute. I thanked him, presuming the gift would be a modest token of support. A couple of weeks later, I was astonished to be told that the gift had six zeroes in it!

Since that time, this man has endowed at Harvard the world’s largest research center dedicated to African and African American Studies, and has become the largest donor to the study of race and ethnicity in the history of our country. He is a very active — indeed, interactive — chairman of our board, effectively the co-chairman of our executive committee, and one of my closest and most valued friends. Ladies and gentlemen, please give it up for Glenn H. Hutchins.

We have had quite a year in Cambridge. The Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African & African American Art opened to rave reviews. To launch it, we hosted our biggest Hutchins Center Honors event yet, at which we presented the coveted Du Bois Medal — Harvard’s highest honor for contributions to African and African American life and culture — to David Adjaye, Maya Angelou, Harry Belafonte, John Lewis, Shonda Rhimes, Harvey Weinstein, and someone named Oprah Winfrey. Our year was filled with lectures, exhibits, symposia, workshops and other scholarly events. We sponsor ongoing research projects that span the reach of the African Diaspora — meaning not only in Africa, the Caribbean, Afro-Latin America, and Black America, but throughout the world. We explore, question, interrogate and celebrate the black experience universally, and the Hutchins Forum at the Old Whaling Church is the place where we inaugurate this work each new academic year.

Despite the triumphs of the past year, we can’t deny that it was a bruising year also — as bruising as any I can remember, to tell you truth. Today, we are examining the topic Black Millennials: They Rock, but Can They Rule. The deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, my friend, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney and the other eight victims in Charleston, and Sandra Bland — as well as others too numerous to name, but whose lives and sacrifices matter no less — shocked us all, and shocked some of us to organization and action. And that’s why Charlayne and I felt that there could be no more appropriate time for us to think hard about how the young activists of today can become the leaders and political actors our society so urgently needs to effect substantive change in this country.

And it is August. August is when bad things, traditionally, often seem to happen to black people in this country, and August is also when black people and their allies rise up to do something about it. DeRay Mckesson, one of the speakers you will hear from today, doesn’t like to say he’s on the front lines of black millennial activism — but I’ll say he’s on the front lines of it. He said something, in an essay for The Guardian two weeks ago, that I would like to share with you this afternoon:

“We did not discover injustice, nor did we invent resistance last August. Being black in America means that we exist in a legacy of tradition and protest, a legacy and tradition as old as this America. And, in many ways, August is the month of our discontent. This August, we remember Mike Brown. But we also remember the Watts Rebellion, and the trauma of Katrina — three distinct periods of resistance prompted or exacerbated by police violence.”

So we are here at the Old Whaling Church — in August — to listen to DeRay and the other activists assembled on this stage.

Who better to guide this exploration than my dear friend and sister, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, who first came to our nation’s attention in 1961, when she and Hamilton Holmes were the first black students admitted to the University of Georgia after a series of court challenges, exhaustive media attention, and violent demonstrations on the Athens campus, demonstrations that I watched in our living room with my parents on our small black and white TV set when I was 10 years old. If someone had told me that I would one day get to know this young woman whose courage was so palpable even to a little kid in the fifth grade growing up in the hills of West Virginia, I would have laughed in your face. But that came to pass. Charlayne has been a hero to me ever since that day I saw her bravery, her composure and grace and certainty of step, even under siege.

Talk about front lines! Charlayne went on to become the first African American reporter for the New Yorker and the second for the New York Times, and she later became one of the most influential figures in television news, where she was a chief national correspondent for The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour on PBS and the Johannesburg bureau chief and correspondent for CNN. She served as chief correspondent in Africa for National Public Radio and she also frequently contributes pieces on Africa for The Root. Charlayne has won two Emmy Awards and two Peabody Awards, and in 1986, she was named Journalist of the Year by the National Association of Black Journalists, which inducted her into its hall of fame in 2005.

In the current New Yorker, she has published a postscript on the life of her friend, Julian Bond, who passed less than a week ago. And what she said about Julian’s view of consciousness might serve to help frame our thinking about the discussion about to ensue this afternoon. In an address to the Southern Conference Educational Fund, Julian, Charlayne writes, “discussed the trajectory of the movement and how the passage of the Civil Rights Act, in 1964, had changed its tenor, making people complacent, making them think that the victory had been won. In his soft-spoken but firm and confident way, he went on to suggest that this apparent victory had sapped the movement’s support. ‘Lack of interest is more killing than lack of money,’ he said. ‘Negroes must not forget race consciousness as long as they are victims of racism.’ ”

We read these words today, with a shudder of recognition — not as a description of a chapter long ago, in the history of the civil rights movement, but more as a prophecy of things that, unfortunately, have come to pass. It’s just one of so many examples of the ways in which Julian, that lion of the movement, whose urbane exterior belied a fierceness rarely matched in eloquence and efficacy, was a man ahead of his times.

We will miss Julian’s elegant wisdom, his humor and his wit, his stubborn hardheadedness, the clarity of his analysis, his relentless commitment to justice and freedom, and, indeed, his unbending determination that our society narrow its profoundly unsettling gap between the reality of race in America and our country’s own professed ideals about equality and justice for all. For all of these reasons, it is only fitting that we dedicate today’s panel to the life and memory of Julian Bond.