As part of its annual celebration(opens in new window) to honor the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., Carnegie Mellon University welcomed Emmy Award-winning journalist Byron Pitts to give a keynote lecture on Jan. 24. Nearly 500 people were in attendance for Pitts’ powerful commentary on the capacity for — and responsibility of — an individual, regardless of their life circumstances, to lift someone else up.
Pitts has traveled the world to cover some of the biggest stories of our time, including the 9/11 attacks in New York, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake that devastated Haiti in 2010. He said in many ways, as a journalist, he makes his living covering death, and that he’s made his peace with that. But something that makes him uneasy is indifference.
“When good and decent people who are blessed with resources and opportunity are indifferent to the challenges that other people face, I’m troubled by that. Life has taught me that indifference is a deadly weapon,” he said. “The core of my message to all of you this evening, as we celebrate the legacy and life of Dr. King, is not to be indifferent to the opportunities each of you have individually and collectively to change the world. Where you stand right now — freshman, sophomore, faculty, staff, administrator — you have the opportunity not just to impact the world but to change the world, and I believe that less because of the work I do and more because of the life I’ve lived.”
Raised by a single parent, Pitts grew up in East Baltimore, where he didn’t learn to read until he was 13 years old and spoke with a stutter until he was 20. Though he was failing all his classes and deemed functionally illiterate in elementary school, his mother knew the power of education to transform someone’s life and refused to give up on him.
“For all of my life and much of her life, my mother wore around her neck — I wear it now — a small mustard seed encased in a clear plastic ball. It was my mother’s reminder of the scripture in the Book of Matthew that says if you have faith just the size of a mustard seed, you can say to any mountain, ‘Mountain, move from here to there,’ and nothing will be impossible,” he said. “It is with my mother’s mountain-moving faith that she got me the help I needed to get through school and into college.”
Pitts went on to tell the story of a young girl named Pilar, who approached him after a talk at a middle school in his hometown to ask, “Where do you go to hide when the world hurts too much?” A young teacher, her first year on the job, saw Pilar talking to him and wanted to know, “What did she want? She doesn’t talk to anybody.” Pitts shared Pilar’s question with the teacher who investigated Pilar’s situation, ultimately bringing an end to the abuse the child had been enduring in her home. Years later, after Pitts helped Pilar get into a good high school and learned she wouldn’t be able to participate in extracurricular activities because her neighborhood was too dangerous for her to be safe going home alone, he arranged for a car and driver to take her home every night.
"Some of the most dynamic entrepreneurs, scientists, creators, artists on planet Earth went here, so that tells me the next generation of dynamic leaders are in this room," Pitts said. "I encourage you to always look for the Pilar in your life, and when they say 'Where do I go, where do I hide when the world hurts too much?', you can say, 'Come to me.'"
Genie Williams, Miss Black Pennsylvania 2024 and a graduate student at CMU pursuing a master of public policy and management degree, performs “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
Farnam Jahanian speaks to the relevance of Martin Luther King Jr.'s values in today's society.
Nearly 500 members of the Carnegie Mellon University community listen as Byron Pitts delivers a powerful commentary on the capacity of an individual to change the world.
Wanda Heading-Grant and Byron Pitts share a photo-op moments before his keynote lecture honoring Martin Luther King Jr.
Pitts reinforced his message of lifting up others with a reference to Horace Mann, founder of Antioch College, who told graduates during his first commencement speech to be ashamed to die before they’ve won some victory for humanity.
“I thought this message would resonate with this room of dynamic scholars and scientists and great thinkers because of the spirit of this place, from your current president to the founder,” he said. “I love what the founder (of CMU) said, your motto, ‘My heart is in the work.’ If we’re going to change some of the chaos in this world, it requires not just the brain, it requires the heart.”
Pitts was introduced to the audience by CMU President Farnam Jahanian(opens in new window), who noted King was a model of living out one’s convictions and that his guiding principles transcended time.
“The values of empathy, compassion, inclusion and impact may be even more important today than ever before,” Jahanian said. “These values are helping us build bridges, and we’re making progress. We must continue traveling this winding road together, working toward a more unified and compassionate community and society.”
Pitts joined ABC News in 2013 as anchor and chief national correspondent covering national news stories and features for "Good Morning America," "World News with Diane Sawyer," "Nightline," "This Week," "20/20" and ABCNews.com. He was named "Nightline" co-anchor in 2014.
Following his talk, Wanda Heading-Grant(opens in new window), vice provost for diversity, equity and inclusion and chief diversity officer, who introduced the evening's program, moderated a Q&A with Pitts to continue the conversation.