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Joseph recalls King's courage

The first time he saw Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Richard A. Joseph was a 17-year-old pre-med sophomore at Dartmouth College. It was 1962, the height of the civil rights movement.

Dr. King, who was there to deliver a lecture, scanned the packed audience at Dartmouth Hall, navigating a sea of white faces. When he came to the young Mr. Joseph, sitting in the balcony, the two exchanged a knowing glance.

"I knew what he was looking for, and I knew he'd found it when our eyes connected for a moment," said Dr. Joseph, then one of a dozen blacks among 3,000 undergraduates at Dartmouth and now a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. visiting professor at MIT.

The seeds for Richard Joseph's political activism were planted during the upsurge of sit-ins and demonstrations of the time, many of them inspired by Dr. King. Soon after the Dartmouth speech, he was taking political science courses, his medical ambitions a thing of the past, and organizing civil rights activities as a member of the Dartmouth Christian Union. While he appreciated the eloquence and the moral force of Dr. King's message of nonviolence, in those days Professor Joseph identified with leaders who advocated more radical tactics in the pursuit of racial justice.

As he contemplates the celebration of what would have been Dr. King's 68th birthday today, Professor Joseph is concerned about the transformation of Dr. King into a "feel-good symbol," often to camouflage reality, a development Dr. King would have deplored.

"I was from the more militant school," recalled Professor Joseph, who is in the Department of Political Science. "Stokely Carmichael, Fannie Lou Hamer, Robert Moses and Malcolm X were closer to my way of thinking. With the passage of time, I have developed more regard for the emphasis on nonviolence, on the need for multiple tactics. I feel differently about Dr. King now. It's been an intellectual process. Perhaps it's maturity."

In fact, Professor Joseph once turned off the radio in exasperation during a "turn-the-other-cheek" sermon by Dr. King while traveling through the South. As a senior at Dartmouth, he also played a central role in bringing Malcolm X to the college for a speech shortly before he was murdered.

While differing with him philosophically during his youth, Professor Joseph always had enormous respect for Dr. King's courage. When working on a voter registration drive in Montgomery, AL, in 1965, he was asked to deliver a written message to someone traveling with Dr. King after a rally. Despite the constant terror that enveloped civil rights workers in those days, no one stopped Professor Joseph as he ran up to the car. The aide to Dr. King rolled down the window to accept the note, politely thanking him for making the delivery. Dr. King's accessibility during such a confrontational period was striking to Professor Joseph.

Later, when Dr. King led the march from Selma down the main streets of Montgomery, AL, Professor Joseph noted the leader's vulnerability and stoicism in the face of real danger and great tension. "My mind was so taken with that," Professor Joseph said. "It was almost a war zone. I wondered what it was like to know that gunshots could break out at any moment. He had to know that any minute could be his last." Dr. King was assassinated in 1968.

Professor Joseph, who is organizing a major conference on African renewal at MIT to coincide with the 40th anniversary of Ghana's independence in March, has been a Martin Luther King Jr. Professor since September 1995. He is a tenured political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta. As a fellow of the Carter Center from 1988-94, he was involved in several missions to promote the peaceful resolution of conflicts and democratic transitions in Africa. He believes that such work is part of the enormous global legacy of Dr. King, "exceeding that of any other American of our age."

Professor Joseph is one of six Martin Luther King Jr. Professors currently at MIT. The others are:

  • Dr. Steven L. Lee, a computer scientist and mathematician at the Oak Ridge Laboratory and an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Tennessee, who is in MIT's Department of Mathematics. He participated in a summer program at MIT while in high school.
  • Dr. William W. Quivers Jr., chairman of the Department of Physics at Wellesley College, who received the PhD in physics from MIT in 1982.
  • Dr. Oliver McGee III, an aerospace engineer at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
  • Dr. Walter Rodriguez, Louis Berger Professor of Design at Tufts University. He was in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering during the fall semester.
  • Ernesto J. Cortes Jr., director of the Texas Industrial Areas Foundation in Austin, will join the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning next fall.

The Dr. Martin Luther King Visiting Professors program was established in 1995 to enhance and recognize the contributions of minority scholars through a greater presence of minority scholars on campus.

Names of nominees are submitted by department or section heads in consultation with their deans. Appointments are given to members of minority groups, with an emphasis on African-Americans. The visiting professors play an active role in the intellectual life of MIT through teaching programs, seminars, lectures and original scholarship.

"The program is going very well, thanks to the people in the host departments," said Professor Philip L. Clay, the associate provost. "They're the ones who make it work."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 15, 1997.

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