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MLK speakers stress affirmative action

President Charles M. Vest and keynote speaker Elaine R. Jones urged more than 400 invited guests at the 23rd annual MIT Celebratory Breakfast for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to honor the slain civil rights leader's memory by promising active support for affirmative action.

"Martin Luther King was, above all, a man of action," Dr. Vest told the overflow crowd at La Sala de Puerto Rico in the Stratton Student Center last Thursday. "His dream is memorable and important precisely because he did so much to make it a reality. If we wish to honor him, than we must do the same. To dream his dream is not enough; nor can we build the society of which he dreamed by command or decree. Rather, we must work proactively to build it through the environments and opportunities we create for learning and working.

"In the years since Dr. King's death, many of our nation's colleges and universities have made a deliberate effort to infuse Dr. King's dream with a measure of reality. Over time, one important pathway to his goals-which we have come to call affirmative action-has yielded substantial results."

Ms. Jones, the first female director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), noted that affirmative-action issues transcend race, using as an example the case of a 62-year-old white woman from Tennessee whose lawyer asked her organization for help after losing in the lower courts.

Ms. Jones, one of whose mentors was Thurgood Marshall, the LDF's first counsel-director who became a Supreme Court Justice, pondered whether to take the woman's case. "I asked myself, `What would Thurgood do?'" she said. The answer: "Yes. Take the case."

The LDF argued before the US Supreme Court, which unanimously supported the woman's contention that she had been a victim of age discrimination when she was fired. "Age [the Justices] all understand," Ms. Jones said. "She was a white female and there are two women on the court. We won the case 9-0."

In introducing the Dr. Martin Luther King Leadership Award winners, Dr. Vest saluted unsung African-American achievers, including W.C. Patton, a recently deceased Alabama educator who was the NAACP's director of voter education. "If American students of all races knew half as much about W.C. Patton as they do about Michael Jordan, our nation would be a better place," Dr. Vest said.

The Leadership Awards went to Dr. Sylvester J. Gates (SBs in math and physics, '73, PhD in physics, '77), a physics professor at the University of Maryland; Myra Rodrigues, an MIT medical social worker for 25 years who retired last year, and the Committee on Campus Race Relations, represented by Professor of Music Ellen Harris and Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering James Chung.

Boston University Professor of Social Ethics John H. Cartwright, graduate student Cedric Logan and sophomore Eto Ottitgbe offered reflections on the life of Dr. King. The master of ceremonies was Greg Shell, a senior in political science.

Alluding to the theme of the breakfast, "The Strength to Love" (the title of a collection of Dr. King's sermons), Mr. Ottigbe asked the audience: "If love were against the law, would you be guilty?"

Acknowledging his debt to Dr. King and the civil rights movement, Mr. Logan said, "I'm grateful that I can walk through the door of my alma mater, the University of Alabama, with a textbook and a calculator, not a broom."

"When I think of King today, I think about the committed lifer," said Dr. Cartwright, who was a founding director of Boston University's Martin Luther King Center from 1968-70. "I know he's saying, `Keep up the spirit.'"

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 12, 1997.

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