MIT Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Committee

30th Annual Celebration of the Life and Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.
February 5, 2004

"Rhetoric or Reality: Civil Right Under Seige"

Students' Remarks

Nicholas Pearce '07
Bruce Webster 'G

Nicholas Pearce '07
Chemical Engineering

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, I am Nicholas Pearce, a freshman in the department of chemical engineering. On this morning, when we have gathered to celebrate the life and legacy of one of our nation’s most prolific civil rights leaders, we must also take care to consider the progress that our nation has made since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. articulated his dream in August 1963. In those 17 brief minutes a little over 40 years ago, Rev. King brought the struggle for civil rights by black Americans to the national forefront. King's words on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that day declared his dream for a free America for all people.

We remember the dream, but does the heart of the dream still beat today? We would be careless to believe that Dr. King’s dream is dead in any sense. However, it is more than fair to say that his dream has not yet been fulfilled. Dr. King’s dream is in the hearts of millions of people, many of whom were not even alive at the time of his speech. The fight of Dr. King and his co-workers in the vineyard of civil rights was a valiant one, and it continues today. Though the fight for civil rights continues, the battle against them rages with double determination. The onslaught of the enemies of socioeconomically-driven civil rights is unwavering, showing no signs of subsiding. While socioeconomic civil rights were the focus of Dr. King’s work, they are not the only issue that has been championed because of his efforts. Other groups, including homosexuals, women, senior citizens, and the disabled have benefited from federal legislations, such as the Senior Citizen’s Freedom to Work Act of 2000, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, both of which address issues of civil rights. Affirmative action has not been addressed since 1964, with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.

Without question, the principal issue of these times is affirmative action, especially in higher education. Among all of the issues of civil rights, it seems as though affirmative action has received the least legislative assistance, arguably because it helps the disenfranchised – the very people who Dr. King aimed to assist.

Here at MIT, opponents of affirmative action have risen up to confront the minority-focused Project Interphase and MITE2S programs, the latter of which I am an alumnus. There are those who have committed themselves to the systematic underachievement of minority students, especially African-Americans. Programs such as the two I previously mentioned decidedly shatter the underachieving stereotype. These programs, and other inclusive initiatives supported by the Institute have come under tremendous fire. My positive experiences from the MITE2S Program led me to apply to MIT for my undergraduate education. MITE2S made the richness of the MIT experience available to me for one summer; it gave me a quick snapshot of the dreams that I could pursue. The Institute is to be commended for its earnest defense of these programs.

However, the national spotlight was thrust upon the University of Michigan and its affirmative action admissions policies in two Supreme Court cases. Our very own, President Vest, took last year’s breakfast as an opportunity to announce MIT’s support of the University of Michigan and its policies. MIT has re-dedicated itself to diversity initiatives, in the face of legal opposition. MIT has made prudent decisions regarding its stance on this issue, and must continue its efforts in the face of pressure. We cannot be discouraged, because backing down due to pressure simply allows the civil rights advancements of the past 50 years to dissipate into nothing, a state from which it had been successfully raised.

We must be careful not to forget to look back as we move forward, drawing inspiration and courage from the tenacity of men and women such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In this 21st century, civil rights are indubitably under siege. The attacks are great, the opponents many, but the resolve of the principled American has not faded one bit. There is erosion across the landscape – everything is being challenged or contested, even the things that were once considered automatic. Voting rights – challenged, the right to an equal educational opportunity – challenged, in essence, the right to have your rights is challenged. The concept of civil rights being under siege is a definite reality. Ladies, and gentlemen, the fact of the matter is this – race still matters in America, and we cannot be so naïve as to believe that the opponents of civil rights have taken a break. Despite the rhetoric being tossed around that we live in a free and equal America, the writing on the walls of time suggests otherwise. Those who suggest that our society is a color-blind one are incorrect; though most Americans may not be blatantly racist, the proverbial playing field is not level for everybody in American institutions. Clearly, Dr. King hoped people “would not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” The dream yet lives and the hope is kept alive; but until the day that every member of every race, color, religion, or creed is afforded the same chance to excel in this nation, and in our world, civil rights will remain under siege. We must not let the efforts of the past 40 years elude our eternal grasp.

As I conclude, the words of Dr. King come to mind, “let us be dissatisfied until those who live on the outskirts of hope are brought into the metropolis of daily security.” He went on to proclaim that we must “walk on in the days ahead with an audacious faith in the future.” Until our faith has become substance, the fight for civil rights must continue; and rest assured, as long as there is a fight, there will surely be an opponent. Thank you.

Bruce Webster 'G
Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering

Good Morning Ladies and Gentlemen. I am Bruce Webster, descended from a people recognized by the United States Government as the Navajo Nation. We call ourselves, Dineh, and in our tradition, I am of the Nakai Dine’eh clan and born for the Haashkliish’nii clan. I am also a graduate student in the Dept. of Aeronautics and Astronautics here at MIT, a United States Air Force veteran and an alumnus of the Nike Sports and Fitness machine in Beaverton, Oregon.

This morning, I would like to speak about whether it is rhetoric or reality: Are our civil rights under siege?

Looking at the two United States Supreme Court decisions of 2003 regarding the admissions policies used at the University of Michigan, it is a reality that the civil rights of all are under siege.

What appears to be under debate is the application of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution of the United States. The petitioners in Grutter v. Bollinger and Gatz v. Bollinger contend that they were treated unfairly in their applications submitted to the University of Michigan. A distinction must be realized: what is fair can be unjust, but what is just cannot be unfair.

Judge Clarence Thomas offered a dissenting opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger, comments were made contending that a man should not be assisted, that a man should be allowed to stand on his own. The dissenting opinions offered rebut the belief that diversity enhances the education of all. A ridiculous argument is made to allow applicants three feet shorter or twenty years younger special consideration on their application. These opinions argue that the admission system is fair, since it was devised by the dominant society.

• This is the same dominant society that enslaved men based on race.
• This is the same dominant society that decided “who could vote?”
• based on race…based on literacy…& based on gender.

The application system is based on standardized tests. There are courses available to study for all standardized tests--and of course--these courses are offered in most large cities for a substantial fee. A fee that can not be paid by some--because they are not in the upper class.

What is fair and what is just? In the United States, it is said that you can be whatever you want to be. In this capitalist society, it is said that you earn your way to the top, or as one ad put it—“We make our money the old fashioned way, we earn it.” Apparently, they chose to overlook where the wealth in this land was acquired.

• Wealth acquired on the backs of slaves.
• Wealth acquired on deceitful deals made with a people that did not understand.
• Wealth acquired on the subsidies provided by the poor.
• Wealth acquired with SAT, LSAT and GRE scores that are bought.

Where is our wealth to be acquired--when we are allowed to come to the table 200 years after the wealth of this land has been divided and handed out?

That is the truth that the dominant society does not want to talk about. Fair and just is not pretty when the magnifying glass is turned on the dominant society. I have heard all my life about the tragedy of the The Holocaust that occurred in Nazi Germany.

• What about the American Holocaust?
• What about the attempts made to exterminate my people?
• What about the policies of Termination by Relocation?
• What about the stealing of our children by adoption?
• What about the sterilization of our women?

Nazi Germany had Hitler. The United States government had Kit Carson, the United States Cavalry and of course the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Now, we have a whole generation of Boarding School Survivors. These children were taken from their homes, from their parents to learn the ways of the dominant society. These children, my parents and my aunts and uncles were taken from their homeland, their hair was cut, they were beaten for speaking their native language and they were not allowed to practice any of their traditions.

How would you feel if you or your children were taken by a foreign nation at 5 years of age?

That same language that was beaten out of my parents is now being celebrated as an integral part of the United States’ victory over Japan in World War II. Does that sound just. It sure doesn’t sound fair?

That is the America I know. That is the America that I fought for. Most of my traditions and history I have come to learn as an adult, but my language was not taught to me. My parents thought it best that I learn the language of the dominant society. They thought that it would help me succeed in this society. I guess the government did a good job on my parents. My people are different, we believe in the larger plan of the Creator.

In military convoys, the slowest vehicle leads and in combat units it is our creed “to leave no one behind.” In our warrior society, the greatest feat in battle was not to kill your enemy. The greatest feat in battle was to lay a hand on your enemy, a tribute to your skill and courage.

It appears that the dominant society is trying to leave some of us behind. But, I am not worried, the Creator has brought me close...close enough to touch the enemy.

I will close with these questions:
What opportunities has the Creator given you?
What will you do when given the opportunity to touch the enemy?

Thank you