MIT Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Committee

29th Annual Celebration of the Life and Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.
February 14, 2003

"Faces at the Bottom of the Well:
Nightmare of Reality vs. Dr. King's Dream"

Students' Remarks

Kateri A. Garcia '03
Ayanna T. Samuels 'G

Kateri A. Garcia '03
Mechanical Engineering

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Kateri Garcia and I am currently the president of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, and a senior in the department of Mechanical Engineering. I am honored, yet humbled, to stand before you today to reflect upon, and pay homage to, one of our nation’s most courageous and influential figures, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. King will perhaps forever be known in our history’s texts as the man with a dream. “I have a dream,” he said, “that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
40 years later, we quote Dr. King with a presumption that time has fully realized his dream. Though time has indeed seen our nation through great transformation, even the course of four decades has NOT been enough to realize the dream. And today’s theme, Faces at the Bottom of the Well: the Nightmare of Reality vs. Dr. King’s Dream, reminds us that social injustice is not necessarily a dysfunction of our history, but a tragedy of the present. Social inequality is an issue that we face today, and the dream voiced by Dr. King many decades ago is still only a dream today.

The dream was to make all citizens of the United States truly equal. As we take time to reflect upon the changes of our nation since the days of slavery, since the Emancipation Proclamation, since the days of the Jim Crow laws that created segregation, since the passing of the 13th and the 14th and the 15th amendments to our constitution it appears as though we’ve evolved from the days of racial discrimination. But as Derrick Bell, author of Faces at the Bottom of the Well, points out, our laws have changed but the sentiment of hatred and misunderstanding is still in the hearts of many.

When we look at the faces of the CEOs of corporate America, at the Justices of the courts, at the astronauts, at the Presidents of these United States, we see that faces of color and women are frightfully underrepresented. Racial disparities, from top executive positions to the unemployed, reflect the presence of that complacent attitude that allows us to settle for less that what we started out towards, and ultimately prevents the equality for which we dream.

Improvement in representation needs to start with our educational system. We here at MIT know what the effects of complacency can be. It’s often the difference between achievement and failure. If that problem is present here, then surely it’s rooted at primary and secondary educational levels.

The drop out rate of American High School students, especially among Minority students, is alarming. The 2000 report from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that while approximately 91.8% of all white students complete high school, only 83.7% of African Americans, finish high school. And the completion rate for Hispanics is a shocking 64.3%. Trends show that this gap is not closing. But where do most students go after high school? And what happens after high school? Only about 1/3 of minorities who do graduate from high school will matriculate to college. And of those about 50% will graduate. MIT has been very successful in attracting and maintaining a higher percentage of minority undergraduate students from 7% of the total MIT population in 1980 to 18% today. However, the rate of graduate students and faculty is a mere 3%. The disparities in these statistics are part of the nightmare of reality. And of those who do succeed, many minorities and international students feel the pressures of not only having to succeed for ourselves, but also for the people we represent. If we fail, we fail all those who will come after us.

Minorities in America are the faces at the bottom of society’s well. African Americans, Native Americans and Hispanics are underrepresented and underpaid in virtually all professions. Society’s system is such that the odds are completely against us, yet red flags are being raised against affirmative action and programs such as MITE2S and Project Interphase to keep us down even longer. The moment that a minority person rises to the top of the well, the people at the top let go of the rope and call us “unqualified,” “too conservative,” or “too liberal.” What they really mean is that we are not white enough. And sometimes, to those in our own communities, we are not Hispanic enough or Black enough. Ah, the double-edged sword of success. Instead of pulling each other back we should be lifting each other up. It is only when we work together that we can make it out of the well.

Look around you. The faces at the bottom of the well are no different from you or me or anyone else sitting around you here today. Ask yourselves how you beat the odds against society and made it to and through MIT. And when you leave this place, will you return to the community you left behind? Like Dr. King, will we face the challenge and “return to the south,” or will we forget that we too were once faces at the bottom of the well?

Dr. King is one of the most visionary and fearless men of his time and of times to come. It was with his courage to return to the South and be an instrument of hope and earth-moving change that carried forward the strides toward civil rights, economic equality, and social justice for all. But he could not have done it alone. Dr. King used his God-given talents to unite people of all colors, economic backgrounds, and religions. He didn’t say “it’s not my problem” but he dared to dream. He embraced the challenge and sent his bucket down to the bottom of the well time and again. Dr. King’s dream lives on and will continue to come true as long as we make Dr. King’s dreams of freedom, justice and equality our own dreams; as long as we continue as he did, to help pull up those faces at the bottom of the well.

Thank you.

Ayanna T. Samuels 'G
Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering

Human Progress Never Rolls in on Wheels of Inevitability

Ladies and Gentlemen, Good Morning. Firstly, I must thank all involved in giving me the opportunity to speak this morning. A personal thank you to Professor Bond, Dr King and all the others who fought and died for the civil rights and opportunities that I now enjoy as a black person from another country -Jamaica.

The very last issue that Dr. King tackled before his death was that of poverty. He rightly stated in ’67 that “the vast majority of Negro brothers are smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society.” Sadly, 36 years later, due progress has not been observed. Thus rightly giving birth to today’s theme.

What is the nightmare of today’s reality you might ask? “Debilitating and grinding poverty that afflicts people of all races, colors and nationalities and chains them to the lowest rung of the economic ladder.” If one were to take the time to peer down at the faces at the bottom of the well you would find that poverty is not racist, nor sexist, nor nationalistic. Derrick Bell’s book based on today’s theme, informs us that US income earners in the top fifth earn more than their counterparts in the bottom four-fifths combined. It would be remiss of me to not mention that there are disproportionate amounts of minorities, in the bottom one-fifth who are ‘burdened with life long poverty and soul devastating despair.’ The permanence of this situation is largely due to the fact that attitudes and public policies associated with slavery have failed to fade away. That is the grim reality. To borrow from the late Bob Marley, it is a sort of mental slavery that keeps us at the bottom of the well, and will detain us there unless we begin to realize that we all have to swim together or sink together.

Unemployment, inaccessible health care, immigration policies, inadequate housing, unequal access to quality education and excess mortality of minorities due to AIDS, speaks to the tragedy of the present. In addition, there are astronomically high rates of incarceration of minority men, a study recently completed by the Justice Policy Institute, reported that there were nearly 200,000 more black men imprisoned than in college. Among the ages 18-24, there are only 2.6 times as many black men in college as there are in prison, the number on death row is equally as astounding. For their white male counterparts, there are 28 times as many in college as in prison. These statistics sum up to an incredible waste of human and economic resources which over time depletes the fiber of the general social and family structure and ultimately results in a lack of belief in the validity of one’s existence.

Suffice it to say that it is not only the faces at the bottom of the well that are disallowed from achieving their full potential. No matter one’s credentials, nor how much those that came before you may have sacrificed to afford you a good education, proper health care and a sound belief in your ability, research has shown that the American populace still has a hard time looking beyond the color of one’s skin. In an MIT and University of Chicago research project, 5000 resumes were sent to 1,250 recruiting companies. In many instances, identical, very able and qualified applicants applied for the same job with the only difference being in their having either ‘black’ or ‘white’ sounding names. The results were alarming; resumes with a ‘white’ name had a 50% higher response rate than their ‘black’ counterparts. What does this mean? The nightmare of reality is that lynching has moved from the overt setting of our great grandparent’s front yards to the corporate board room….

Then there is the issue of Affirmative Action. Dr. King must be turning in his grave to see our leaders misusing his ideals to oppose the inherent goals of Affirmative Action. Unfortunately, the term has long suffered from definitional drift. Affirmative Action exists to address centuries of past discrimination and the effects of present discrimination based on race, gender, disabilities, age, and religious affiliation. As former President Clinton once said, the answer is “not to end it but to mend it”; the real issue is in the details of implementation. The methods of implementation must be examined with care to ensure they are not just mechanic percentages but that they adhere to legal and ethical standards. It is imperative that in tandem with such efforts, we seek to fix America’s educational system from the K-12 level. Disparities in resources and opportunities available along race and class lines must be mitigated with urgency. Regarding diversity, simply stated - it is a must. As Dean of Admissions, Marilee Jones, said recently “engineers need to come from everywhere to solve the problems of people everywhere.”

Were Dr. King here today, with respect to the issue of the war on Iraq, being such a vehement supporter of nonviolent confrontation, I think he would agree with the UN that any action taken should be the result of proper investigation and consensus. It is interesting to note that in preparation for war, minorities and the poor are overwhelmingly represented and gave their lives in the Vietnam War much more than none-minorities. Throughout all these atrocities one tenet remains true, simply time and the generosity of people will not solve our race, class and economic problems.

In order to turn today’s nightmare into Dr. King’s dream we need to cease from turning a blind eye to the wails of the economically deprived at the bottom of the well. As. Dr. King once said, “The curse of poverty has no justification in our age” and must be hastily relinquished. A major inhabitant to social progress is that the downtrodden among us, irrespective of class, race or creed, refuse to realize the necessity of each other’s existence in the quest to make it out of the well. Some even gain their self esteem by looking down on the faces at the bottom of the well.

Dr. King was a firm believer in the fact that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It is only when Whites and all Minority groups work in coalition that we can truly effect change, escape from the well, and “rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.” However, there must be the knowledge that this will be fiercely opposed by the status quo. Recently the Census Bureau indicated that there are now more Hispanics than Blacks in America. Instead of celebrating an increase in diversity, the sentiment of the media has been that African-Americans should be concerned that Hispanics could possibly “replace” them in societal concerns; this in a not-so-subtle attempt to pit both groups against each other. Nothing could be more tragic than for us to retard to such ideals at this time, we must instead think about how we can collectively assist each other in em-bettering the quality of the social fabric of America.

Dr. King had “the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere should have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.” Unfortunately, he was assassinated before he could see his dream realized. As such, his tombstone reads “Free at last, Free at last, thank God Almighty I’m free at last” Thus I implore you, let not Dr. King’s dream’s significance dwindle to a mere symbol to add to all the other ‘uncashed checks’ that have been handed down to those that suffer. Let not another face at the bottom of the well have to drown in their own despair before they can finally say that they are free at last….Prove that you can assassinate the messenger but you cannot assassinate the dream. Remember human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability, did you hear me? Remember human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability… Remember human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability.

Thank you.