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Mfume challenges students to work for Dr. King's goals

The Hon. Kweisi Mfume, president and CEO of the NAACP, urged MIT students to honor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by enlisting in the struggle for justice and equality.

In delivering the keynote address at MIT's annual breakfast to celebrate the memory of Dr. King at Morss Hall last Thursday, Mr. Mfume spoke directly to the students in the audience of 425, saying: "I challenge you, as Dr. King would, to do that right now."

The theme of MIT's 25th annual celebration of Dr. King's life and legacy was "Teaching and Learning: the Key to Full Inclusion." The event also included an art installation and gospel choir performances.

Before he introduced the keynote speaker, President Charles M. Vest paid tribute to 1995 MLK Day speaker Judge A. Leon Higginbotham Jr., who died last December. President Vest noted the series of events that have chipped away at race-sensitive admissions at universities, including the Bakke decision, Proposition 209 in California, Measure 200 in Washington state and the Hopwood case involving the University of Texas Law School.

"Many argue on behalf of these referenda and court challenges that it is discriminatory to make race a consideration in admissions, and that students should be admitted only on what they consider to be merit," he said. "In my view, there are two quite elementary flaws in this argument.

"First, we have laid upon the table several factors -- things such as grades, rank in class, test scores, geographic distribution, breadth of interests and accomplishments outside the classroom, race, economic status, international mixture and so forth. Those who challenge us reach out and remove from the table one and only one factor -- race -- and say, 'Thou shall not consider this.'

"Second, their underlying assumption is that we can accurately measure the specific quality of our applicants by a simple number or two. They seem to seek a world in which we are each ranked at age 18 by some easy indicator like an SAT score, which thereby determines our breadth of opportunity.

"We believe that building a class for a great university by using a range of factors promotes a better educational experience for all our students, and that it increases our ability to contribute to building the strong, coherent, productive society this nation will need in the next century."

President Vest, who hosted the breakfast with his wife, Rebecca, introduced Mr. Mfume by saying: "When it comes to equal opportunity and social progress for all Americans, we could seek no stronger advocate."

Mr. Mfume defined the goal in simple terms.

"In an era of smaller vision, rampant apathy and celebrated mediocrity, we need those men and women who will stand up and speak out for that which is right and to fight back against that which is wrong," he said. "To really mean it when we say that racism, sexism and anti-Semitism are wrong. To know as a matter of critical fact that black bigotry is just as cruel and evil as white bigotry. To understand intuitively that xenophobia and homophobia and immigrant bashing and union bashing and city bashing deplete us as a nation.

"They rob us of some lofty place in history and relegate us to where we have been, and regrettably, in many respects, are still now. So, in speaking out as Dr. King would speak out, we must be honest and true to our own sense of fairness. For the great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie -- that's deliberate; it's contrived, it's dishonest. The great enemy of the truth very often is the myth, because that is persistent and persuasive and unrealistic."

In concluding his address, Mr. Mfume said:

"There will be those beyond these doors and beyond this activity today who will counsel you to be silent in this reactionary time. They will suggest, students, that you look the other way and hope for the best.

"But I refuse to stand mute when opportunity is denied and justice is deferred, and I challenge you not to stand mute also. So, when the timid come running to you to say that they fear even to try anymore, we must reply, as Martin King did from an old Birmingham jail, that now is the time. When you were told to wait for tomorrow or the next tomorrow, for the next election or the next generation, we must reply that now is the time...

"I have not given up on the American idea or the American possibility. And I, like Dr. King, would urge you not to give up also [in] devising a social order where justice is the supreme ruler and law is but its instrument. Where freedom is the dominant creed and order but its principle. Where equity is the common practice and fraternity the true human condition. And to take that belief and to run with it beyond this university, beyond your years of youth, and beyond all else, and to make a real difference in this nation and in your generation."

Before Mr. Mfume and President Vest spoke, freshman Maribel Gomez and graduate student Randal Pinkett offered brief recollections of Dr. King.

Noting Dr. King's quotation that "nothing in this society is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity," Ms. Gomez said, "History is unfolding. Our actions of today are the history of tomorrow... let us live and act by the words of Dr. King."

Alluding to Robert Frost's choice of "the road less traveled," Mr. Pinkett said, "Each of us, in his own unique way, chooses a new path, crossing over into uncharted territory. What about when there is no road? Then the road is made as one walks."


After the keynote address, Chancellor Lawrence Bacow presented the Dr. Martin Luther King Leadership Awards to Professor of Mechanical Engineering Alexander Slocum, Boston public school math teacher Richard Williamson (SB 1985), and mechanical engineering senior Adriana L. Holguin.

In accepting his award, Professor Slocum paid tribute to Marc Graham and Martin Culpepper, "two extraordinary students," and the hundreds of Second Summer seminar participants who joined them in developing the international Urban Design Corps.

"To build a road," he said, "the byte is mightier than the bulldozer." He also read a poem he composed called Dr. King's Dream with words including: "His dream was dedicated to our parents... our everlasting souls... our children... the Almighty."

Mr. Williamson, who teaches math in a "last-chance" alternative public school in Roxbury and Dorchester and helped organize some of his students into God's Posse Inc., noted Dr. King's observation that a life is not worth living until a person "finds something worth dying for." In his own case, Mr. Williamson said, "I found in these young men, on the streets of Boston, something worth dying for."

"When I think of Dr. King and the motivation he possessed, I ask myself, 'What else can I do to become a better leader?'" said Ms. Holguin, honored for her role in the National Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers and the National Society of Black Engineers. She said she accepts the responsibility and challenge to educate others. "At the same time," she said, "I'll never forget the important things in life -- humility and faith in God."

Provost Robert Brown introduced the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Visiting Professors -- Drs. Lloyd Demetrius of brain and cognitive science, Lynda Jordan of chemistry, Pamela McCauley-Bell of aeronautics and astronautics, Starling Hunter of the Sloan School of Management. Arnold Stancell of chemical engineering was unable to attend the breakfast.

The invocation was given by MIT Rabbi Joshua Eli and the benediction by Betsy Draper, MIT's Southern Baptist chaplain. The mistress of ceremonies was Shayna Smith, a senior in civil and environmental engineering. The MIT Gospel Choir also performed.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 10, 1999.

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