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MLK celebration speech by MIT graduate student Joy Johnson

Joy Johnson
Joy Johnson
Photo / Donna Coveney

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

I am Joy Johnson, a graduate student in Electrical Engineering from Greensboro, NC.

I remember the day my dad took off work, which he never does, to come for a parent-principal meeting, which I prayed he would never have to do. It was like a dark cloud descended upon that school. I was so scared I would rather the rapture come, than my father. I had not cut class, I had not failed a subject, I had not been suspended... I had applied for a scholarship; a scholarship which required my school counselor to send in my transcript. And so weeks went by not hearing from any school, I started to feel like maybe I wasn't good enough, maybe I didn't deserve it. One day I get a phone call, that the Park Scholarships(a full merit scholarship to NC State) was very interested in interviewing me but never received my transcript, I started calling around and it seems no one had received them, but my classmates (all white) had been sent and received in due form. When I asked my counselor about it, nonchalantly she said simply, "I forgot..." and thus the day my father descended upon Grimsley High School, a high school that neither of my parents were able to attend for the same reason she had forgotten my transcript.

Many times the intelligent and the disenfranchised alike feel what psychologists like to call "the imposter syndrome" in which the sufferers, unable to internalize their accomplishments, remain convinced they do not deserve the success they have achieved. We still must ask ourselves "Do we belong here?" but many times the imposter is not us at all...

The theme for this celebration is "Yes We MUST" but what MUST we do? For so long we have been achieving, inventing, discovering, but our achievements have been overlooked, our inventions stolen, and our discoveries rediscovered, and thus we find ourselves suffering from this imposter syndrome. The true imposters have been doing it so long they have perfected the art of fraud.

Everyone always speaks of Dr. King's "I have a Dream" speech in which he quotes the infamous words of Thomas Jefferson, saying " I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." Even that statement is fraudulent in that these are not the words of Thomas Jefferson but the words of his neighbor, an immigrant Philip Mazzei. What Dr. King knew and what we now know was that the duality of hypocrisy transcended the obvious injustice of those words, but he also knew that this issue between de jure and de facto law was not new nor was it original.

There are so many untold injustices and imposters who are left out of history. Stories of black musicians like Robert Johnson and Roy Brown who were playing Rock 'N Roll in 1947 a year before Elvis ever picked up a guitar. Stories of the poor black sharecroppers of Tuskegee, Alabama who were mercilessly used like lab rats to come up with the drugs and treatments for syphilis. Stories of people like Vivien Thomas who created not only the medical trials, but the surgical procedure and made the actual instruments needed to save infants with blue baby syndrome at a time when cardiac surgery was not even considered possible, but whose credit was given to the white doctor whom he worked for as a janitor and later a medical apprentice.

Even in light of this historical election, never on any broadcast or in news article did I ever once hear someone mention Shirley Chisholm, who in 1972 became the first major-party black candidate for President of the United States and the first woman to run for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Each African American has stories of their own family members whom the imposter has served this plate of injustice. Many of us have relatives whose contributions to knowledge were unrecognized, whose efforts at justice were met with violence, whose rights were denied at every front but fought on and thus we find ourselves here....

So I ask you now, do you feel like imposters when you walk on this campus, do you ask yourself what MUST I do? Even when you know that you have the creativity of Roy Brown, the intellectual genius of Vivien Thomas, the oratorical skill and sharpness of Shirley Chisholm, in you? But the question remains.

If the mantra is yes we must, what MUST we do? I think Dr. King put it best in his Give Us the Ballot address in 1957 when he said "The hour is late. The clock of destiny is ticking out. We MUST act now.... We MUST work passionately and unrelentingly for the goal of freedom, but we must be sure that our hands are clean in the struggle. We MUST never struggle with falsehood, hate, or malice."

We at MIT have extraordinary opportunity even as our mission states that "we MUST work to advance knowledge and educate students in science, technology, and other areas of scholarship that will best serve the nation and the world." It does not say some students, majority students, minority students, or even all students. I think the lack of differentiation is indicative of the transparency that true innovation and true intellectual advancement requires we must have in our interactions with one another, in the lab, in the classroom, in the corridors infinite or otherwise:

We MUST give credit where credit is due in our academic work as well as in our everyday lives, and this MUST begin with acknowledgement, speaking to one another, speaking to the janitors, cafeteria workers, bus drivers as eagerly as we do our Institute Professors.

We MUST show integrity in our collaborations with everyone, in our fervent pursuit of solving the world's problems, making this institutions decisions based on merit not nepotism, racism, or cronyism serving as the world's paragon for progress.

We MUST as our mission states SERVE this nation and this world through our research, our talents and our intellect.

We MUST realize that we are the dream that Martin dreamed when he was sleeping at a university right across the Charles river.

And like our President charged us in his most transparent version of those infamous words." The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness."

Thank You!

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