Keith Boykin told a crowd of Emerson community members January 23 that failure is a part of success—whether you are President Barack Obama or late civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Boykin, a former aide to President Bill Clinton, bestselling author, and media commentator, spoke at a luncheon at the Ritz-Carlton Boston Common to kick off Emerson’s African American Heritage Month events, which are organized by the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs and GLBTQ Resources.
“Failure was a part of his success,” Boykin said of Obama, who lost a race for Congress before running for higher office as a U.S. senator. “Those of us who don’t fail never really learn the experience of what success means.”
Boykin said the same was true for King.
“Dr. King understood those lessons,” he said. “He experienced failure many times in his career. It wasn’t just…one accolade to another. Dr. King was down in the trenches—fighting, experiencing failure, being beaten up, arrested, put in jail—because he believed in the cause.”
“Dr. King asked us…to turn up the heat sometimes and make it a little hotter, to make it a little more uncomfortable, a little more awkward, so people actually learn to do the right thing,” Boykin said.
Boykin, who is African American and gay, spoke of his involvement in a federal discrimination lawsuit against Harvard Law School as a student. He said that even though his group lost the suit, it led to changes that resulted in Harvard becoming more diverse today.
Boykin said that after graduating from law school, “I knew I didn’t want to be a lawyer.” He worked for five failed political campaigns, including the 1988 presidential campaign of former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, before working for Clinton—who won the presidency in 1992.
“By 1992, nobody thought it was a good idea for me to get involved in politics,” Boykin said. “And suddenly I found myself with a job working for the president of the United States—having just come out [as gay]—and having learned the importance of tenacity.”
After the lunch, Boykin signed copies of his most recent book, For Colored Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Still Not Enough. He regularly writes commentary for the Huffington Post and several other news publications, and is a frequent commentator on cable news outlets.