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MLK celebration speech by MIT senior Matt Gethers

Photo / Donna Coveney

35th Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration Breakfast of MIT
Remarks by Matt Gethers
Presented: February 5, 2009

Good morning. My name is Matt Gethers. I'm a senior here at MIT in the department of biological engineering and I'm honored this morning to share some reflections about the role of diversity in our society. I'd like to begin with a story. It starts in the 1940s in South Carolina with a Black man named Lee going to pick up his brother, Rock, after his discharge from the Navy. On the way home, they stopped at a convenience store for some cigarettes. Rock went inside the store while Lee tended to the car. It wasn't long before Lee heard a commotion in the store and, fearing the worst, he decided to investigate. When he got inside, he saw three white men surrounding Rock telling him that he had "no business in this store," as they began to move in on him. That's all Lee needed to see. He let out a yell and a few minutes later, the three men were on the ground. Lee and Rock hurried home and after discussing with family, everyone agreed that Lee had to get out of the South. If he didn't, they'd come for him, and the police would be of no help. That wasn't a surprising decision. In fact, I'm willing to bet that Lee knew he would have to leave when he made the decision to defend his brother. But that didn't stop him.

I have to admire the courage it took for Lee to literally place his life on the line to assert his God-given rights. For better or for worse, that's an assertion members of my generation rarely have to make. I have to wonder, if faced with the same challenge, would I have had the courage that Lee, who happens to be my grandfather, demonstrated? If the freedom of my race depended upon my bravery, my willingness to expose myself to physical harm, would we have made the gains we've made? If it were up to me to refuse to give up my seat on a bus, up to me to demand my seat in a school where no one wanted me, would I even be allowed to stand at this podium?

The answer to these questions will remain unknown to me, because the past is the past. I can't, nor do I want to relive it, and that's a bittersweet reality. On the one hand, it's unlikely that I'll ever have to endure the trials my ancestors knew. But on the other hand, I feel the need to share in the work and sacrifice that have secured my inalienable rights as a citizen of this country and world. But I can take heart. Over the past four years and especially as I wrote my comments for this morning, I see ever more clearly that the bridge to Dr. King's dream is not yet complete. There's work to do yet, but the fights are going to be far different from those of yesterday.

Here in the United States, our laws and institutions now reflect what we know to be right with respect to race, gender, and disability. But the law has no jurisdiction over our hearts and minds. When we doubt our classmates, calling them the product of affirmative action, we when we wish someone would good back to his country and stop competing for jobs with "real Americans," when we remove natural-born American citizens from our planes, and subways, and buses because they merely look like a madman who kills innocents in the name of God, that dream becomes ever more distant. We've done well in purging racism and hatred from our laws and institutions, but to realize Dr. King's dream, we must now we must purify our hearts and minds.

The path to victory in this second battle of a great war demands that we achieve diversity through leadership. You see, it's not enough to know that we are created equally, we have to live it every day or we default to ignorance and hatred. In the absence of diversity, stereotype reins. It's like parasite that fills voids of knowledge that should be filled by personal experience and reason. Stereotype rationalizes placing blame where it doesn't belong, affirmative action for not getting in to your dream school, the drive for a "diverse workplace" for being overlooked for a promotion. Stereotype even causes your own people to look down on you for things as petty as your taste in music or as important as the person you choose to marry. But I would say the greatest danger of stereotype is that it causes us to doubt ourselves. In my work with Cambridge middle school students, the greatest tragedy is not the low test scores or even the palpable fear of math and science, but that at such an impressionable age, they honestly don't believe that they could grow up to become an astronaut, or a physicist, or a surgeon, or even the President. And why? Because they feel young black women don't grow up to be CEOs or because Latinos have no business in the U.S. Senate, or because "people from this neighborhood don't go to college."

Yes we must! Achieve diversity through leadership, because it's only when these students can see themselves in people who breaking the mold, people who are redefining what it means to be Black, to be Hispanic, to be a Woman, to be gay, to be poor, that we'll restore their sacred right to dream. But breaking that mold takes courage and leadership, the same courage and leadership it took to stand up to Klansmen, the same courage and leadership it took to march on Washington, and yes, the same courage and leadership it took to for my grandfather to defend his brother in that store, it is this courage and leadership that will inspire our youth and elders to abolish our prejudices towards one another and to bring into the light a prophecy, that "When this happens, when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, Black men and White men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro Spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last! Thank you.

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