MIT Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Committee

25th Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Breakfast Celebration
February 4, 1999

"Teaching and Learning: The Key to Full Inclusion"

The Honorable Kweisi Mfume

President, NAACP

Thank you. Thank you very much. Allow me, if I might, to begin my remarks by thanking Dr. Vest for those kind and overly gracious set of comments, and for his leadership at this historic university. But probably this morning, more than anything else, for being a buffer between me and the two very impressive students that spoke before me. I am particularly happy, Dr. Vest, that you invoked the name of Leon Higganbotham, who was a very dear friend and probably the most important reason why I left my work in the Congress to join the NAACP. After many conversations with Judge Higganbotham and after many opportunities to understand his reasoning as to why it was important for me to do that, I ultimately did just that. And was here just a couple of months ago to participate in his home going service, and would say to particularly students who may have not had the opportunity to meet Leon Higganbotham, that you find a way to either get to the library or to get back onto the Internet, or to get to someone who did, to find out about this extraordinary individual. I'd also like to thank all of the people who have made this morning's event possible. There are a lot of them, and I was particularly happy last night that I got a chance to meet many of them. I'd like, if I might, on a point of personal privilege to really thank Dr. Leo Osgood and Professor Michael Fell. They have through perhaps some difficulty, but more importantly, through a number of different circumstances that we probably are not aware of, continue to find a way to make this possible and to remind all of us about the need to take time to commemorate and to remember. I want to also say to Provost Robert Brown, and all the others who have worked very hard on this event that I do thank you, and I know I speak on behalf of students who are here and those who are not, who recognize now, even if it is in hindsight, how important this remembrance is.To Ms. Gomez and Mr. Pinket, I want to thank both of you for your energy for the opportunity to meet you last night. But more importantly, for the energy and the sense of understanding you displayed a little while ago with respect to why it is important to remember. And I'd also, if I might, like to acknowledge, as was the case earlier, the presence of the mayor of Cambridge, and many, many other honored guests. Not the least of which are several distinguished members of our organization, our state conference president here in the New England area, Miss Charlotte Nelson, who is somewhere out there. Charlotte. And the presidents of our Boston and Cambridge chapters, Lenny Alkins, Jackie Carolle, I know Burt Berder [SP?] is here, and a few others. I think all of you for coming out and supporting me. And for coming out also to work with this community as you do day in and day out. Could we give all those persons a round of applause? I bring you greetings this morning on behalf of the NAACP. Our 1,700 branches in 50 states, the District of Columbia, Germany, Japan, and Korea. At the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People we believe that colored people come in all colors. For it was the NAACP that saw America through the troubled years of Jim Crow, and second-class citizenship and legal lynchings. Through the years of manufactured grandfather clauses and poll taxes and literacy tests, where you had to tell how many bubbles were in a bar of soap just to be allowed to vote. We fought, over the years, the just fight to integrate the military and to end official segregation as we knew it. And we found also a way to help a nation divided against itself through the confusion and the turbulence of the 1960s and then later through the 1-isms and the indifferences of the 1980s. So, it is not for us a matter of having come a long, long way, but rather and instead it is a matter of having still yet a long, long way to go. That, in turn, begs the question not when do we get there, but what path do we take. That is where your themes of teaching and learning and inclusion come into play. You see, the light really does burn bright here and for MIT. You are a place, in many respects, where, for some people, dreams have come true. And given birth to other dreams of service and academic excellence. You have been entrusted with a mighty vision, and you have proven in many respects to be worthy stewards. Some of you have worked hard to make sure that your talents are not buried in the ground, but rather, invested well in the arts and in the minds of our greatest asset, our young people. The late Dr. Benjamin May, of Morehouse College, once said that he or she who starts behind in the race of life, would either have to run faster or forever remain behind. Young men and women who have kept this tradition of remembering alive now for all these 25 years, in fact, have run faster. So, I applaud them, and those brave souls, no matter how small in number they may be who labor here at this university, who like tilers of the soil continue to push and to prod and cajole for a greater university commitment to diversity and equal opportunity. They know almost intuitively, that our ability as a nation to survive will depend particularly on how we deal with our increasingly pluralistic society. So, as a preface to my remarks, I would challenge others today to take the route that those individuals have taken. It is one of embracing diversity while seeking to promote reciprocal understandings. Recognizing as we do that, quite frankly it's easier to do nothing. So, because we all want to do something, let's start, if we might, by putting in proper context the man who we have come to commemorate this morning. The rabbi spoke of the Old Testament. Let me go even beyond the book of Exodus and to talk for just a moment about the book of Genesis, the 37th chapter, because it underscores in many respects the age old desire by a lot of people to undercut visionaries by trying to do away with their dreams. It says in the 37th chapter that, and when they saw him from afar, even before he had come near to them, they conspired against him to slay him. And they said one to another behold, the dreamer cometh. Come now, therefore, and let us slay him. We will cast him into some old pit, and say that some evil beast has devoured him. And we shall see what becomes of his dream. Martin Luther King, Jr., unawed by opinion, unseduced by flattery, undismayed by disaster, confronted life with the courage of his convictions and confronted death with the courage of his faith. And lest we ever forget, we are talking about a young man. Twenty-six years of age when his face first appeared on the cover of Time magazine. Thirty-five years of age when he won the Nobel Peace Price. Thirty-nine years of age on the afternoon of his assassination. It is important to understand that because it's important to have a full appreciation of his capacity and his indignation over the absence of justice. A Greek historian, at least legend has it, was once asked when would justice every come to Athens. And after thinking about the magnitude of the question, he thoughtfully replied that justice would never come to Athens until all of those who were not injured were just as indignant as all of those who are. And so I hope and pray that those of you in this room this morning who are Caucasian or white, that you understand the indignity of those like myself who are not, at the scourge of racism and bigotry and unequal treatment. And that you in your own way will become just as indignant. I hope and pray that those who are here today who are of Asian and Indian, Hispanic, and Native American ancestry, that you understand as we must the real need never to give up on the idea of coalition building even when some in your number and some in mine prefer to go the other way and to talk only about our individual agendas or the power of our individual groups. And I hope and pray that those of you who sit here today, who are African-American or of African ancestry, that you understand as we must, the real need at some point in time to get beyond blame, to get beyond excuses, and to start once again doing for ourselves. If we were to leave here and to go over to the lab, and sit before any computer, and to request from ourselves a simple computer printout of all the salient issues facing us as a nation, it is clear that the list of problems to be printed out by the computer would, in fact, be overwhelming. Institutionally, government, military, church, and school are all under attack for either real or imagined defects. Politically, the Joint Center for Political Studies in Washington would remind us that 35 years after passage of the Voting Rights Act and 30 years after outright efforts to register and to elect people that still in this country less than 7% of all the elected officials are of African or Hispanic or Asian ancestry. Socially, that same print out would suggest that the issue of race and skin color still dominate too many aspects of American life. Both at home and abroad. Economically, it would suggest to us in the clearest of terms that after four years of Congressional acquiescence to the concept of Robin Hood in reverse, the haves now have more and the have nots have not at all. The gap continues to widen. And educationally, it would point out the obvious. That too many of our public schools are overcrowded and ill equipped and drugs tend to be more available than textbooks. That too many young people in those schools, because they are locked there, are being promoted because of their age or because of their size only to be rewarded at the end of 12 years with the equivalent document that would suggest that it was certificate of attendance, but not a meaningful high school diploma. Yet we know that the student in those schools, not different from students in other schools, have one thing that defines them. That is that the student who makes the grade is still the one who comes early and stays late. To learn the meaning of the lesson, but never to lessen the meaning of assignment. That the teacher in those schools who makes the grade, is still the teacher who teaches the touch of life, and not just to make a living. Just a few months from now we will witness what many in the press will refer to as a celebration of the 45th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision, Brown vs. the Board of Topeka, Kansas. When on May 17, 1954, nine men robed in black assembled on that historic day to announce their unanimous verdict. There was, in fact, dancing in the streets. At black colleges, classes were suspended that day, and parties were hastily assembled. There was dancing in the streets of Richmond and Raleigh, and Baltimore, and Washington. People began to believe in their hearts and in the innermost parts of their being that our nation was at long last launched on an unalterable course with a firm determination that in terms of public education, we were now prepared to overcome the legacies of the past. But in 1969, just a decade or so later, a high ranking official in the White House, who is now a United States Senator, advised the president then, in what later became known as the celebrated memorandum on public education, when he said, Mr. President, we have made so much progress moving black people into the mainstream of American, economic educational, and social life that our nation's policies from this point on with respect to the status of those people ought be accorded benign neglect. That neglect, once proposed as benign in too many respects today for too many people, is a neglect that is malignant. So, when we think about Dr. King in his capacity, remember also what Randall said. This was an ordinary man who was called on to do extraordinary things. I underscore that because god still calls on ordinary people. All of us. As Booker T. Washington once said, to cast our buckets down where we are, to pick our own battlefield, and to make a difference in a real and meaningful way. When Dr. Vest talked about these attacks on the ability of young people to matriculate as the result of efforts to deny opportunity, that's all tied into the exact same thing. We know that affirmative action has met with resistance from its inception, and that lastly, for the last five years or so, there has been a sustained attack nationwide. A movement throughout the country to gut and to destroy affirmative action as we know it, and in the process, destroy diversity programs as well. Programs both in the workplace and on college campuses. Prop 209, Initiative 200, the University of Michigan case, which is now pending, the Hopwood decision in the aggregate, they chip away at the ability of people who come behind you or at least want to come behind you students to sit where you sit. Now, interestingly enough, the rationale for this attack has been unsubstantiated reports of widespread color blindness. People just say, well, you know, things are different, and we're a colorblind society, and so we don't need to help you with a Hispanic surname. We don't need to help you because you happen to be of African ancestry. We don't really need to help you either because you come from the Pacific Rim. We don't have to help you who grew up in Appalachia. We don't have to do anything for anybody because color blindness has broken out throughout this society. Oh, if that were the case. This program would be more than a celebration. It would be a magnificent celebration. So, I say to you and remind myself as we think about why we have come together, what it means to remember Dr. King, and what our own personal challenges. That it is not so much the hypocracies of the past, the things that we know about, that we find repulsive, the institution of slavery, the attacks on individuals because of their religious beliefs, the attacks on individuals because of their surnames, or because of their sexual preferences, it is not so much the hypocracies of the past as much as it is for those people of color, the hypocracies of the present. That's what should concern us. Item number one: in 1990, the Urban Institute bi-partisan funding, bi-partisan participation, conducted a nationwide study over a number of years and concluded, unequivocally, that there was unequal treatment of minority job seekers. Item number two: in 1991, the Holiday Health Spa club chain was found to have systematically discriminated against women of color. Item number three: in 1993, Denny's restaurant settled claims of discrimination because they refused to serve black customers who happened to be six gentlemen guarding the president as Secret Service agents, prepared to take a bullet that day to preserve democracy. Item number four: 1994, the Chevy Chase bank agrees to an $11 million settlement because they red-lined communities and neighborhoods, or at least were accused of doing it and refused to go into court to defend themselves as many other institutions had previously done. Item five: 1995, the Glass Ceiling Commission concludes that women, Hispanics, and AfricanAmericans are still disproportionately represented among the nation's working poor. Item six: 1996, Texaco, the infamous tape where executives are caught loosely making fun of Jewish holidays and black holidays, and referring to people as jelly beans of color, and talking very, very openly about why it's important not to let those people have an opportunity. And lastly, 1998, data released under the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act showed nationwide that black and Latino borrowers were turned down at increasingly higher rates when applying for mortgage loans. More than 50% of all those who applied were denied loans at banks across this nation. And so, regrettably, discrimination is not an article of the past. It is, instead, an article of the present. So, what then really becomes our role in dealing with what we are faced with? We find ourselves living at a time when our sense of community can no longer be taken for granted. That's for sure. We find ourselves at a time where information technology has made it possible for us to communicate across oceans, across continents, across every conceivable boundary of race and culture, and to do that almost instantaneously, but our technology has almost also made it possible for us to be able to live and work in complete isolation from our neighbors and fellow citizens. Things have changed. It'd be nice to be like these birds, just fly around all day long. You know? Have a little bite to eat on that table, and fly up to the balcony. But things have changed. The common experiences that have made us recognize each other as members of a community of Americans are becoming less common each year. Scab labor, unbridled poverty, second-class citizenship, and violent crime chip away at that sense of community every day. Hate speech, hate groups, hate radio, and hate crimes are attempting to divide those same communities like never before. Yet, we know if we lose that sense of community, that same community that Martin King spoke about from an old Birmingham jail, we lose much of what has made America distinctive among the nations of the world. As foreign visitors have observed since the beginning of this Republic, America' s greatest strength has been her identity as a group and a collection of different people who's common destiny was more powerful than their diverse backgrounds or stations in life. That is why people in this country, under the umbrella of the NAACP and hundreds of other groups, have always made an attempt to try to communicate across lines of race, class, age, and religion.

It's not because they were foolish or foolhardy. It's because they understood the fact that it is harder to accept that the road less travelled is the road less certain. But it is the proper road for us to be on anyway. It is that path that Randall talked about. That we'd be out of the wilderness that makes a difference. The really, really understanding of what it means to be on a road less travelled. That whether or not street lights and paved sidewalks, where there is at each turn some degree of uncertainty, but certainly at the end of the road, if we are persistent, a great deal of satisfaction. That opposite path? The one that's paved and well lit? The one that we think has no curves? That's a path of cynicism, contempt, distrust, and suspicion. It is best espoused by the Timothy McVey's of this world. That road, to be sure, leads to separatism, suspicion, division, and destruction. So, collectively and individually, our charge has been renewed, regrettably, by an old plague that has come back to America. A plague that has resurfaced with great abandon. A national scourge, if you will, of insensitivity and intolerance. Whether it is the repugnant act of burning black churches or desecrating synagogues; whether it is increased violence form militia groups, or bombings of federal buildings, or demonstrations against immigrants simply because they can not speak as we do. Tolerance for too many has once again become a dirty word. You look at what happened out there in Laramie, Wyoming, the student matriculating, and because someone thought they should determine what his sexual preference ought to be, decided that they and not god had the right to take his life. Look what happened in June in Jasper, Texas. Three hundred miles from nowhere, James Byrd, Jr., on a street corner trying to get home, and gets grabbed and dragged by a truck for three miles until his arms and neck and limbs are dismembered because he just happened to be black. Now, if Dr. King were here, he would remind us that Jim Crow, Sr. is dead, but Jim Crow, Jr. is alive and well.So, the great moral challenge for all of us is to separate the truth from the trick. The challenge rests on our shoulders. Because in an era of smaller vision, rampant apathy and celebrated mediocrity, we so desperately 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. 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 back 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. Too often we hold fast to the conclusions of other people. We subject all facts to a kind of prefabricated set of interpretations. As my grandmother said, we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought. Yet, we have spent 5,000 years as a race of human beings trying to drag ourselves out of the primeval slime by searching for truths and moral absolutes. Yet, in it's purest form, truth is not a polite tap on the shoulder. It is, as Martin King reminded us, a howling reproach. What Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai 2,000 years ago was not the 10 suggestions, but rather a blueprint for life. Maribel Gomez said it earlier, and I think it bears repeating as we talk and remember and reflect on the life of Dr. King, those words that said that we, we are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. And that in this unfolding conundrum of life in history, there really is such a thing as being too late, for procrastination is still the great thief of time. So, consequently, students the degree that you will one day receive from MIT will, in fact, represent many things. It will be a reward for your academic excellence. It will be reminded of a debt that you can never repay your parents, it will be both a source of relief and respect to your professors, but more than anything, it will be a license to learn. So, age has given me the arrogance and experience has given me the urgency to tell you what life looks like from my side of the river. My generation was the first to think that we might not have any time at all. Your generation is the first to be born knowing it. So, there will be those beyond these doors and beyond this activity today who will council 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 believe, and I humbly submit to you this morning, that we must use this occasion, this glittering reminder of the success of our experience, to recommit ourselves to sharing a basic dream.

It is the dream of Martin Luther King and Fannie Lou Hammer. The dream of Du Bois and Washington, and Tubman, and Douglas. The dream of all those nameless and faceless people who made their bodies bridges over generations that you might run across and one day get to the university. We must do that not just through our prose, our poetry, or our prayers, but also through our actions. Action, which removes a large part of our distress by changing the conditions around us that created. So, as I go to my seat, let me say to you, and again remind myself, that 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. I am convinced that this nation still stands before the world as perhaps the last expression of the possibility of mankind. 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 it's 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. I challenge you as Dr. King would, to do that right now. And when they saw him from afar, even before he had come near to them, they conspired against him to slay him. And they said one to another, behold, the dreamer cometh. Come now, therefore, and let us slay him. We will cast him into some old pit, and say that some evil beast has devoured him. And we shall see what becomes of his dream. Thank you.