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Tavis Smiley started his keynote speech by saluting graduate student Eric Caulfield for his eloquence in reflecting on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s life and legacy last Friday at MIT's 28th annual presidential celebratory breakfast honoring the slain civil rights leader.
Then he proceeded to mesmerize 550 members of the MIT community and invited guests in Walker Memorial's Morss Hall for 45 minutes on this year's celebration's theme, "From Dreams to Reality: The Illusion of Full Inclusion."
Caulfield, who spoke about an hour before Smiley took the podium, sprinkled his talk with rhyme, alliteration and an allusion to Shakespeare. The audience showed its appreciation with frequent laughter and applause.
Surveying the crowd, Caulfield, a graduate of Dr. King's alma mater, Morehouse College in Atlanta, said, "It does my heart good to gaze out on such a celestial cornucopia of colors, a sublime symphony of hues, a magnificently marvelous mosaic of men and women of different backgrounds, races and religions."
Continuing in the same vein, he said, "If one were to take time to ponder the preponderance of perplexing peculiarities persistently plaguing people, then one might come to the conclusion that what we are in fact seeing is indeed an illusion--the illusion of full inclusion."
On an ordinary Friday, he noted, the dining hall might offer a less mixed, more accurate picture of MIT and society: fewer African-Americans, fewer Latinos, perhaps fewer women. "We might sit back and say, 'Inclusion, inclusion, wherefore art thou, inclusion?'" said Caulfield, a graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science from Jacksonville, Fla.
He recited a hypothetical list of skilled people from Brooklyn, Cambodia, Indonesia, Mexico, England, Germany, Poland, Sri Lanka and Argentina with varied backgrounds, noting that they "all bring to the table something different and yet the same: competence and diversity."
In remembering King, Caulfield said, "we should remember his work. We must embrace difference, press for equality and break the rose-colored glasses of sameness that prevent us from seeing through the illusion of full inclusion. So on this day of remembrance let us not only commemorate the man but let us also remember his mission."
Smiley, a political commentator, author and talk show host, noted in his keynote address that Sept. 11 and the war on terrorism represented a defining moment in US history and challenged the country to make it a redefining moment.
"You are uniquely positioned as the best and the brightest that this country has to offer--those who will move from this place to become leaders in all kinds of institutions, in corporate America, in government and beyond," Smiley said. "You are uniquely and best positioned not just to raise the question of how we take this defining moment and redefine America, but indeed to go about the business of answering that question.
"Let me submit something to you. It would be a travesty for this country to have endured what we endured on the day those diabolical attacks were levied against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon--it is untenable, quite frankly--to imagine that... those of you in this edifice would allow that day to come and to go, to understand that it is a defining moment for us, and to not do anything about taking this defining moment and redefining America."
He urged members of the audience to join him in confronting tough questions that King would be posing if he were still alive. He also asked them to draw a line between patriotism and nationalism.
"Patriotism demands that you make your country better by asking the tough questions," he said. "Patriotism demands debate. Patriotism sometimes demands dissent.
"Nationalism is fanaticism--'I'm an American, I'm going to wave a flag, I'm down with whatever Mr. Bush says. Whatever Congress says, I'm down with it.'"
Smiley noted that King's popularity dropped when he opposed the Vietnam War. He urged people to follow his example and raise unpopular questions about the current US foreign policy on forming alliances with dictatorships around the world. He said King would be questioning policies that limit civil liberties, specifically racial profiling.
"If King were here today, he'd be asking us to re-examine our assumptions about how we're going to go after terrorists, about how we're going to condone this racial profiling that's going on now," he said. "Once they get these laws, once they get these rules on the books, as they're getting every day--a few years from now, who do you think these rules are going to be used against? You. Driving while black, walking while black, breathing while black, living while black. Just being black."
Other issues that King would confront include diversity in the media, religious intolerance, the proliferation of hate on the Internet, predatory lending, insurance redlining, immigration policy and education, Smiley said.
"My grandmother, Big Mama, said to me all the time, 'Tavis, you can't win it if you ain't in it. Advocacy is not a spectator sport. To make a difference, honey, you got to get off the sideline and get involved in the game.' To make a difference, you've got to re-examine those assumptions. To make a difference, you've got to ask those tough questions...
"You can't help nobody else in America unless you help yourself first. And that's what these celebrations are all about."
Before introducing Smiley, President Vest restated MIT's commitment to creating a culture in which there is "a true working and living together, regardless of race, class, culture, age, field of study, religion and experience."
"I wish I could say that were uniformly the case at MIT. But I cannot. Not yet," Vest said. "We have made progress over the years, but we need to rededicate ourselves to the principles of openness and inclusion if we are to have a real community.
"The fact remains that most American adults live largely segregated lives. Our workplaces may be somewhat mixed, but our neighborhoods typically are not. For white students especially, their years at MIT may be the most integrated experience of their lives. And yet, we have much to do if our students--all of our students--are to have the real benefits of living and studying in a truly multicultural, multiracial community.
"This begins with admissions and access. If we are to provide the kind of environment and education that our students deserve, we must reach out to, and be open to, all those who will best contribute to and benefit from MIT. Without access, there is no inclusion."
He pledged MIT's continued commitment to affirmative action in admissions.
"We have an opportunity--and, I believe, an obligation--to make the MIT experience as positive, constructive and transformative as possible for each and every one of our students, individually and collectively," Vest said. "We truly must get beyond the illusion... to the reality of full inclusion. It will take time, and good will, and hard work and faith.
"But I know that it can be done--that we will reach the place where we can meet each other and know each other simply as human beings, not as distant representatives of any group. And when we do, we will have found the most important route to mutual understanding and equality."
Georgette M. Charles, a junior in biology, also reflected on the life and legacy of Dr. King. "I'm not quite sure if he gave me a clear-cut solution," she said, "but he started opening up my mind to some possible ones," including a strong sense of purpose, belief in a cause and the ability to inspire others to lead. "Together we can break through every barrier," said Charles, chair of the Society of Black Engineers.
Dean for Undergraduate Education Robert P. Redwine presented MIT's annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Awards to Professor Paul E. Gray, president of MIT from 1980-90; Campus Police Sgt. Cheryl Vossmer; alumnus Randal Pinkett (M.B.A. and S.M. from the Leaders for Manufacturing Program, both in 1998; Ph.D. 2002) and graduate student Tamara Williams (S.M. 2000). They were honored for service to the community.
Provost Robert A. Brown introduced the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Visiting Professors and Scholars. Musical interludes were provided by the South Central Massachusetts Choir and the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School choir. The invocation was given by the Rev. John Wuestneck and the benediction by the Rev. Amy McCreath, both members of the MIT Board of Chaplains. The emcee was Maribel Gomez, a senior in chemical engineering.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 13, 2002.