29th Annual Celebration of the Life and Legacy of Martin Luther
February 14, 2003
"Faces at the Bottom of the Well:
Nightmare of Reality vs. Dr. King's Dream"
Kateri A. Garcia '03
Ayanna T. Samuels 'G
Kateri A. Garcia '03
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
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.
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
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.