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MLK celebration keynote speech by the Rev. Dr. Ray Hammond

34th Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration Breakfast of MIT
Ensuring Educational Access: Our Challenge, Our Opportunity
Remarks by the Rev. Dr. Ray Hammond
Presented: February 21, 2008


My thanks to President Susan Hockfield for hosting this breakfast and extending this invitation through my friend and colleague, Karl Reid. My greetings to friends too numerous to begin recalling.

Had the pleasure of attending last night's dinner to honor five individuals who embody that spirit of serving what MLK called "the beloved community." To my joy I knew three of them--Zina Queen, a Cambridge community activist and fellow member of that community of faith called St. Paul AME church in Central Square; Leo Osgood--a leader of OME; and Michael Feld--for a brief moment fellow students in the karate class taught by Sensei Ron McNair and for a lifetime fellow admirers of Dr. Ron McNair. My congratulations also to Ali S. Wyne and Lorlene Hoyt.


'We shall overcome, we shall overcome. We shall overcome someday.
Oh, deep in my heart I do believe, We shall overcome someday.'

That was the song of the '60s. It was sung in segregated schools and on integrated picket lines. It was chanted in sanctified church pews and on secular bar stools. From the backwoods of Mound Bayou, Mississippi, to the towering projects of Chicago, Illinois, folks were singing about overcoming--someday. The lyrics affirmed a dream for mothers whispering background music to the cries of their sun-kissed babies. Those same lyrics confirmed a reality for mourners singing at the gravesides of countless numbers of individuals--mostly black, some white--who sacrificed their tears, then their sweat and finally their very blood to die for that dream. We shall overcome someday…

We are here this morning to celebrate the life of a man named Martin Luther King Jr.--a man who was born in Atlanta, Georgia, on Jan. 15, 1929, the son of MLK Sr., a prominent Baptist pastor, and Alberta King; a bright young man who entered Morehouse College at age 15 and had received his PhD from Boston University by age 26; a man who could have chosen a secure and prosperous life as the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, with the full assurance that he would succeed his father as the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. He could have led a quiet life of prestige and financial security as a leading pastor, local community figure, or even a college or seminary professor cloistered in the security of the ivory tower. But when a tired black woman--named Rosa Parks--refused to give up her seat to a white patron on the bus, the call went out for a coordinator and leader. MLK answered the call and for the remainder of his life, he was caught up in the task of setting the captives of American society free. He went on to become the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and in 1968, at the young age of 39, while leading Memphis garbage workers in a strike for decent wages, he was assassinated. Even those who supported him in words only or who disagreed with him ideologically could not deny the pivotal role he played in bringing African-Americans out of the basement of American society. By his life and his leadership he demonstrated that the power to bring about change belonged to all people, including those of African descent: that the forces of evil are not always triumphant; and that one need not become like one's oppressor in the course of fighting oppression.

Indeed, the importance of MLK goes far beyond the gains won for people of African descent in America. MLK should be as much remembered for the fact that he called America and, indeed, all mankind to task for failing to live up to its ideals. He should be remembered because he began with the pursuit of civil rights, moved to the pursuit of human rights, and along the way helped to set in motion a movement that continues to bear fruit for peoples of other colors, women, the disabled and oppressed people around the world. His was a life that made a difference for all people--whether they were sharecroppers struggling for the right to vote, children fighting for the right to a decent education, garbage workers striking for decent pay, African freedom fighters struggling against colonialism and apartheid, Irish marchers for equality in Derry, or people standing before the shattered ruins of the Berlin Wall singing "We Shall Overcome."

It is fitting and right that we honor his memory--not simply with flowery words in praise of a leader now dead, but in an honest look at the state of his dreams which are living. Here we stand at a time some:

  • 389 years after blacks were first brought to the shores of America as slaves
  • 232 years after the founding of the American Republic
  • 145 years after the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation
  • 56 years after landmark ruling, Brown v. Board of Education
  • 43 years after King declared, "I have a dream…"

and the question we must ask ourselves on this day is "Where do we go from here?"

It's a timely question for there is no doubt in my mind that were Dr. King alive to see this day and time, he would be amazed--amazed at the fact that:

  • Those shut out of the economic and political mainstream of America for centuries--Blacks and Hispanics and women--have, in growing numbers, moved into positions of decision-making and power that were undreamed of in his day--senators, representatives, Cabinet secretaries, presidential candidates, mayors of major cities, CEOs, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, foundation presidents and school superintendents, just to name a few. He would be flabbergasted by the thought that the front-runners and only contenders for the Democratic nominee for President of the United States are a black man and a white woman. Don't tell me that God doesn't have a sense of humor.
  • America's middle class has become integrated to a degree considered radical and revolutionary in his day.
  • Students of color have been admitted to institutions like MIT in the numbers that they have

He would be amazed by the impact of a movement begun by himself and a host of freedom fighters, most of whom remain nameless.

But I'm also sure that were he here, Dr. King would agree that the most pressing matter is not simply commemorating his life, nor remembering the civil rights movement, but rather asking ourselves this question--"In the face of continuing challenges, unaddressed problems, and new crises, where do we go from here?"

This is always a ticklish subject. How do we acknowledge the reality of past and present discrimination in opportunities and resources without getting into whips and leather, the guilt game, and contests to decide which group has been more victimized? Is it possible to remember and address our history so that we are not, as George Santayana warned us, "destined to repeat its mistakes," while not becoming trapped by that history in a never-ending cycle of recrimination and denial. Where do we go from here?

That's the title of a book Martin Luther King published in 1967, the year before his death--Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? At the time King wrote this book, the civil rights movement was at an important crossroads. It was under pressure from whites who argued that the gains already realized were sufficient and that it was unrealistic and unnecessary for blacks to press any further claims. On the other side were blacks who argued that the pace of progress was far too slow and that the time had come to struggle by any means necessary, including violence. The former accused King of being too militant and a rabble-rouser; the latter accused him of being too conservative and an Uncle Tom. The question was timely then and it's timely now.

It's the question that I ask of myself as a leader in the faith community and the philanthropic community every time that I recall:

  • The growing gap between America's haves and have-nots
  • The growing number of people who work 40 hours or more a week and still cannot afford housing in the city of Boston or who have become victims of foreclosure.
  • Every nine hours a person under 25 dies of AIDS
  • Every day 5,703 teenagers are victims of violent crimes
  • At least once a week, 134,000 teenagers use cocaine

Where do we go from here?

And it's the question that I raise to the ranks of elite academics and students this morning in general and my alma mater MIT in particular. In a globally interconnected, shrinking and increasingly diverse world where does the research university and this research university go from here? As the barriers fall and the glass ceilings are shattered in the private and public sector, where do we go from here? In what many have called "the post-Civil Rights era" what do we really mean when we talk about "Ensuring Educational Access: Our Opportunity, Our Challenge" and where do we go from here?

The Debate over Diversity

I need not tell you that the debate over diversity remains contentious at best and divisive or polarizing at worst. Whether promulgated under the rubric of affirmative action, multiculturalism, transculturalism, set-asides or affirmative opportunity, there tends to be much heat and often little light in discussions around this subject. Let's begin by acknowledging that while there are certainly people who are racist, sexist or classist there are also many people who are not captive to any of those "isms" and who yet remained troubled by what they see and hear whenever the discussion or policy deliberations turn to the subject of diversity. What they see is the potential for, if not the reality of, reverse discrimination--i.e, doing now to others in the majority what was once done to those in the minority. What they hear is the lowering of standards--playing fast and loose with competencies and qualifications for the sake of a numbers game. What they envision is the nightmare of social engineering--attempting to change human relationships by law or regulations or policies. But is it reverse discrimination to nurture the interest of youth and search for the best and brightest among people of every race, ethnic background, and gender, especially those to whom the world of science and technology have been an invisible kingdom? I don't think so. Is it a lowering of standards to consider not only standardized test scores and grades, but recommendations and evidence of performance in the lab? I don't think so. And finally, is the quest for diversity with excellence an example of social engineering or is it, instead, the kind of social engagement that characterizes a community, a nation, a profession and a university at its best.

Let me quickly suggest three reasons for strengthening our commitment to ensuring educational access at every level of the research university. Succinctly stated, they are pipeline, pedagogy and policy.


By the middle of the 21st century, it is projected that there will be no majority population in America--non-Hispanic whites will be 50 percent or fewer of the nation's citizens.1 Because of differences in birth rates and immigration patterns we are becoming a more diverse nation day by day. That's true of Boston--a fact which is utterly astounding to me. As someone who came to Boston in 1967 from the city of Philadelphia, where people of color rule the subways, I got on the Blue Line at Logan Airport, discovered that I was the only person of color on the train and immediately wondered what planet I had landed on. Forty years later there is no racial or ethnic majority in this city. What implications does all of that have for the replenishing the ranks of science and technology?

Let me be clear. No one should ever suggest that only blacks or Hispanics or women can or should be the role models for young blacks, Hispanics or women. It does, however, appear that at least two things may be true. The first is that the presence, advocacy and decision-making power of minority members within a professional setting can help to sensitize that profession to needs of other minority members. The second is that minority professionals play a vital, though not exclusive role, as mentors and role models, in overcoming one of the major obstacles to recruiting other minority members to the profession, i.e. the pool of interested, available and qualified minorities.2

If the recruitment of the best possible pool for the future of science and technology is the goal, can we afford to overlook the need to increase the diversity in the ranks of its practitioners?


Nor is the pipeline the only issue. There's the matter of pedagogy. Mano Singham reports the following in his wonderful article entitled "The Canary in the Mine: The Achievement Gap Between Black and White Students" in Phi Delta Kappan.3

"One study originated around 1974 at the University of California, Berkeley, and was the result of an observation by a mathematics instructor named Uri Treisman.4 He noticed (as had countless other college instructors) that black and Hispanic students were failing in the introductory mathematics course in far greater numbers than were members of any other ethnic group and were thus more likely to drop out of college. This occurred despite remedial courses, interventions, and other efforts aimed directly at this at-risk group. Treisman inquired among his colleagues as to the possible reasons for this phenomenon and was given the usual list of suspect causes: black students tended to come from homes characterized by more poverty, less stability, and a lack of emphasis on education; they went to poorer high schools and were thus not as well prepared; they lacked motivation; and so forth. Rather than accept this boilerplate diagnosis, Treisman actually investigated to see if it was true. He found that the black students at Berkeley came from families that placed an intense emphasis on education….There was also a wide diversity among them - some came from integrated middle-class suburban neighborhoods; others, from inner-city segregated ones.

"What Treisman then did was to narrow his investigation to just two groups-- blacks and the high-achieving ethnic Chinese minority….He discovered that, while both blacks and Chinese socialized with other students in their group, the Chinese also studied together, routinely analyzing lectures and instructors, sharing tips and explanations and strategies for success. They had an enormously efficient information network for sharing what worked and what didn't. If someone made a mistake, others quickly learned of it and did not repeat it. In contrast, the black students partied together, just like the Chinese, but then went their separate ways for studying. This tendency resulted in a much slower pace of learning, as well as the suffering that comes with having to learn from mistakes. Black students typically had no idea where they stood with respect to the rest of the class, and they were usually surprised by the fact that they received poor grades despite doing exactly what they thought was expected of them, such as going to class, handing in all their assignments on time, and studying for as many hours as other students.

"Treisman addressed this problem by creating a workshop for his mathematics students. In these workshops, students were formed into groups and worked on mathematics problems together. Discussion and sharing of information were actively encouraged and rewarded. By this means, Treisman sought to introduce to all his students (not just those who happened to chance upon this effective strategy) the value of group academic effort and sharing as methods of achieving academic success. One notable feature of this experiment was that the working groups were mixed ethnically and in terms of prior achievement. The second noteworthy feature was that the students were given very challenging problems to work on, much harder than the ones that they would normally have encountered in the regular courses…. The ethnically mixed nature of the groups avoided the perception that this was a remedial program aimed at blacks, while the explicitly challenging nature of the problems posed to the students meant that there was no stigma attached to failing to solve them.5 Failure was simply due to the difficulty of the problems, not to membership in an ethnic group that was assumed to be incapable of achieving academic success. In addition, when students did succeed in solving a problem, they experienced a sense of exhilaration and power at having achieved mastery of something difficult, which, as anyone who has experienced it will testify, is the only real and lasting incentive to high achievement. What Treisman found was that, as a result of his workshops, black students' performance improved by as much as one letter grade."

This work is very interesting in light of the research of Scott E. Page, whose mathematical modeling and case studies demonstrate that diversity in staffing can produce organizational strength. Perhaps we are cheating all of our students when we fail to work hard at developing diversity in the research university.

Societal Policy

Finally, there's the realm of policy, social policy in particular. Scientists are more than the discoverers of new knowledge and ways to apply that knowledge. They are integral to the discussion of how and why that science and technology should be deployed. They should be a part of the discussion about global warming and how to weigh the prior and ongoing damage done by developed economies in Europe and North America vs. the growing damage being done by developing countries in Asia, Africa, and S. America. They should be part of the discussion about allocation of scarce technological resources, whether they be advanced AIDS drugs or funds for promising areas of research. They cannot be the sole arbiters of such questions; neither can they abdicate the responsibility for dealing with such questions and delegate such matters to civic and governmental leaders. Scientists and engineers must be educators, debaters, advisors, and, sometimes, deciders. What they cannot be are the monolithic, mono- or bi-racial, and unrepresentative guardians of information and wielders of authority. Such a state of affairs is growing to be as untenable in science and technology as it is in politics and business.


Pipeline, pedagogy, and policy. Perhaps I have raised more questions than I have provided answers. Nonetheless these questions, though difficult, are unavoidable.

I'm reminded of the story of two hunters who flew deep into remote Canada in search of elk. Their pilot, seeing that they had bagged six elk, told them the plane could only carry four out. "But the plane that we had last year was exactly like this one," the hunters protested. "The horsepower was the same, the weather was similar, and we had six elk then." Hearing this the pilot reluctantly agreed. They loaded up and took off--but sure enough there was insufficient power to climb out of the valley with all that weight, and they crashed. As they stumbled from the wreckage, one hunter asked the other if he knew where they were. "Well, I'm not sure," replied the second, "but I think we are about two miles from where we crashed last year."

As a society, we understand very well how to crash--how to live in a state of denial and wait for somebody, anybody else to provide the answers. We know how to tolerate situations of inequity and to try to put the best face on them as the ways things are or as the way God intended them to be or as the fault of those not as gifted as ourselves. My hope and prayer is that, as a nation which has gone through a civil war and a civil rights movement, we can make a firm, moral and practical commitment to opening the doors of opportunity ever wider to an ever growing circle of people.

The Story of HST

I am a product of that opportunity extended and opportunity seized. Lured by the prospect of a program that offered a graduate school approach to medical education I became a member of the first class of the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology (or simply HST). It was in that setting that I got my best exposure to the rigors of scientific thinking and research as applied to human physiology and human disease. It was also the venue in which I was challenged to think about health economics, health policy, and medical ethics. I didn't get a Ph.D. but I did use the knowledge I gained in the practice of medicine for more than 15 years. More importantly, that training and discipline continues to directly inform and affect my work in supporting AIDS work in W. and E. Africa as well as health care reform in MA where I've had the privilege of working on universal health care. That training and discipline informs and affects my work in community safety and youth violence--arenas in which I, along with others, continue to push the research, policy, and programs that can address not just high-risk youth (the symptoms, if you will) but high-risk families which are the vectors for a variety of societal and personal diseases, including poverty, mental illness, unemployment, family breakdown, substance abuse, and domestic violence, to name just a few. The only thing more dysfunctional than the families from which many of my youth come is the dysfunctional bureaucracies (filled with good-hearted people with good intentions) that spend far too much on mopping up the water on the floor and far too little on turning off the tap that is making the sink overflow. It's my blessing to use my training in how to think in arenas far and wide. Many of my classmates and those who followed (including that small number of students of color) have gone on to do exciting work in science and technology. I'm proud to be a part of that cadre. And now my hope is that the cadre will increasingly reflect the country and world it serves.

I remain unshakable in my conviction that we can go forward as a learned community and we can go forward as a nation. We can go forward if everyone--black, white, Hispanic, Asian, male or female--can become as preoccupied with their responsibilities toward others as they are with their rights for themselves. We must echo the words of Martin Luther King who warned thirty years ago:

"Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy;…now is the time to make justice a reality for all God's children. It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment."

Where do we go from here? The choice is ours. It's ours to choose whether we remove the yoke of oppression and become what MLK called "the drum majors for justice." Where do we go from here? It's ours to choose whether we are paralyzed by fear or are energized by a faith in God and in one another. Where do we go from here? It's ours to choose whether the gifted and the blessed among us are willing to share their resources with those less blessed … simply be doctors or, instead, become ministers of healing … lawyers … ministers of justice and reconciliation; businesswomen and businessmen or guardians of the earth's resources, both renewable and nonrenewable, human and material; politicians and policy makers will be real public servants who model the ideals of servant-leadership, integrity, and a vision broader than the results of the latest polls. teachers … educators who impart learning about life in all its wonder and possibility and the inspirers of another generation; students preparing to find a job or scholars fulfilling their calling in life … whether we will combine the music of slaves in the 19th century with the words of freedom marchers in the 20th century and sing as we travel through the 21st century:

"Ain't gonna let nobody turn me around…(x2)
I'm gonna keep on a walkin', keep on a talkin', walkin' up the freedom trail."

This the faith we must take with us as we do our work each day and as we forge a new vision for America in the 21st century. Choosing this course will take vision … will take faith … will take hard work, but if, as one people--black white, brown, red and yellow, rich and poor, male and female, young and old, immigrant and native-born, scientists and artist, engineer and politician--we choose this course in faith, we shall really overcome.


1Census Bureau. Population Projections of the United States by Age, Sex, Race, and Hispanic Origin: 1995 to 2050. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office. Feb 1996.

2This certainly seems to be true in medicine. See Johnson JC et al. "Extending the Pipeline for Minority Physicians: a Comprehensive Program for Minority Faculty Development." Academic Medicine. Mar 1998; 7--3?,3 no. 3: 237-44. See also Carline JD et al. "Precollege Enrichment Programs Intended to Increase the Representation of Minorities in Medicine." Academic Medicine. Mar 1998; ~ no. 3: 288-98.

3Mano Singham. Published in: ED Online, US Dept. of Ed. published: 09/01/1998 posted to site: 10/01/1998 HYPERLINK "" In this article, author Mano Singham suggests strategies for reducing the achievement gap between black and white students. Singham describes many research studies that indicate how this gap can be narrowed and ultimately eliminated. Reproduced with permission of Phi Delta Kappan (September, 1998, pp. 9-15

4P. Uri Treisman, "Studying Students Studying Calculus:' College Mathematics Journal, vol. 23, 1992, pp. 362-72.

5The work of Claude Steele, a social psychologist at Stanford University, is particularly illuminating here. He has done some groundbreaking work to suggest why over half of African-American college students fail to complete their degree work, for reasons minimally related to innate ability or environmental conditioning. He suggests that the problem is that they are undervalued in ways that are sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant. He also suggests that obstacles to achievement may be overcome in an atmosphere that reduces racial stereotyping. See" Race and the Schooling of Black Americans." Atlantic. Apr 1992; 269, no. 4 :68-78. See also "A Threat in the Air: How Stereotypes Shape Intellectual Identity and Performance." American Psychologist. Vol. 52, No. 6, pp. 613-629.

©Ray Hammond, 2008

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