In his keynote address at MIT’s 37th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast Celebration on Wednesday, CNN analyst Roland Martin said that King’s spirit, idealism and commitment to personal action are alive today, as exemplified by the protests that have erupted on the streets of Egypt over the last few weeks.
“The folks in Egypt are trying nonviolence” in their bid for freedom and democracy, and in doing so are following in King's footsteps, Martin said. Emphasizing the important role that young people can play, including the many students gathered at the breakfast, Martin pointed out that it is “the young folks in Egypt driving this entire movement.” He said that this impassioned effort by the young echoes the work of King, who, when he was elected to lead the incipient civil rights movement in Montgomery, Ala., in the 1950s, was still in his twenties — as were many of the other leaders of the movement at the time. These young people, Martin said, were willing to take chances that many of their elders feared to take.
He pointed out that it was a high-school student who carried out the first lunch-counter sit-in in the segregated south in the ’50s, and then four college students who began a sustained series of sit-ins that lasted more than a year and was a major turning point of the growing civil rights movement. “All of a sudden a movement went all across the south, all because four college students decided to do something,” he said. And the whole nation started to pay attention “when the fire hoses and the dogs were turned on the children."
In introducing Martin, MIT President Susan Hockfield said, “I look forward to this celebration every year, for the sense of community and shared purpose.” Diversity makes the country stronger, she said, but “opening the doors turns out to be the easy part." Much harder is achieving real inclusion — creating an environment where those who come from under-represented minority groups “can count on a sense of full citizenship and belonging at MIT.” Achieving that goal, she said, is “our central challenge today.”
Martin, an award-winning journalist who holds a master’s degree in Christian communications in addition to a bachelor’s degree in journalism, spoke with passion, exhorting the more than 400 audience members each to make a personal commitment to specific action over the course of the next year. “We have to have sustained involvement, sustained action if we want to change the direction of this country,” he said.
The election of Barack Obama as the nation’s first black president was “the beginning of a process, not the end of a process,” he said.
After asking people at four of the breakfast tables in Morss Hall to stand up, Martin pointed out that they were greater in number than those who voted to make King their leader on that long-ago night in Birmingham, when he was just the newly appointed minister of a local church. If such a small number of people “started a movement that changed the world,” Martin asked, why couldn’t the people gathered at the breakfast have a similar impact? “There’s enough brainpower, there’s enough energy, there’s enough passion just in this room to literally change the world. It’s been done before.”
The annual breakfast celebration featured musical selections by the MIT Gospel Choir and the Ettienne Group, an invocation by John Wuestneck of MIT’s board of chaplains, a benediction from Chaplain to the Institute Rev. Robert Randolph, and reflections on King's legacy by two students, senior Khalea Robinson and graduate student Pierre Fuller.
Robinson, a civil and environmental engineering major from Washington, D.C., and St. Kitts & Nevis, was an MIT Washington summer intern in 2009, working in the Executive Office of the President in the Office of Management and Budget. She said, “I’ve known since I was seven that I wanted to build bridges and skyscrapers.”
She talked about the importance of collaboration, emphasizing that this means not moving in lockstep, but rather “that we move united by a commitment to excellence ... toward goals that are socially redemptive.” She talked about the difficulty of having to choose between following her own interests or directing her work toward “the most pressing concerns of the 21st century,” such as improved access to clean water, in order to “solve these whispering problems before they become bellowing ones.” She said King urged students “to explore, tap into, and remain true to what he named that all-important, inner and guiding ‘blueprint’ upon which we are to build our lives,“ adding that “we each have a unique and irreplaceable role to play ... to speak bravely, and clearly, with the force of us all.”
Fuller, from Flint, Mich., and a doctoral candidate in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, said that “neither MIT nor my city of origin is the best indicator of my success, ability or potential.” Rather, he said, “my success is attributed to the collective influence of many people who have shaped my life."
Fuller spoke about “recognizing the importance of cooperation” as opposed to focusing on individual achievement. “The academic elite are not the sole proprietors of the solutions to the world’s problems,” he said. “We must humble our ambitions and replace our savior mentality with a servant mentality.” Quoting King, he added that “through our scientific genius we have made of this world a neighborhood; now through our moral and spiritual development we must make of it a brotherhood.”