MIT, at its 21st annual Martin Luther King Jr. celebration last week, honored an alumna, a faculty member and three student groups for exemplifying the ideals of the assassinated civil rights leader, ideals which the main speaker said were dangerously absent from the Republican's Contract With America.
Honored with the first Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Awards were George Mason University Professor Cynthia McIntyre, Professor Emeritus Robert W. Mann and the MIT chapters of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, the National Society of Black Engineers and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers.
Deirdre Lawrence, a PhD candidate in the Division of Toxicoloty and president of the Black Graduate Student Association, presided at the ceremony.
The keynote speaker--retired federal judge A. Leon Higginbotham Jr.--said that Dr. King's ideals of racial equality and fairness are missing from the Contract With America.
Judge Higginbotham imagined Dr. King might write an open letter to his fellow citizen of Georgia, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and call the Contract With America "one of the most tragic hoaxes and potential cruelties which could take place in America."
The retired jurist, who supported MIT in its successful attempt to resist a federal antitrust suit that would have weakened the Institute's ability to provide need-based financial aid, imagined that Dr. King would say:
"Mr. Speaker, what scared me so much as I looked at all of the issues that you said were so important, is that not once did you say that you want to eradicate racial discrimination, not once do you say that you want to eradicate gender discrimination. The only time you use fairness in your entire table of contents is fairness for senior citizens... That disturbs me."
Judge Higginbotham said Dr. King's letter might note that the Contract With America says "nothing about enhancing fairness for children" or about improving healthy birth rates, immunization rates or polio vaccine coverage, in which he said the United States ranks 70th in the world.
"What is your answer," Dr. King might ask the House speaker, "to the fact that the number of those in poverty is 14.7 percent of the population, that it has risen for the third straight year? Or that one of four American kids live in poverty?"
In the name of Dr. King, Judge Higginbotham called on the House Speaker to "forget about contract, forget about the political rhetoric." He cited George Wallace who for years called for "segregation forever," but as his life neared its end admitted that "he was wrong about his rhetoric, wrong to call it tyranny that a president was enforcing the Constitution" with federal forces so that a black woman could be admitted to a southern college.
"So therefore, Mr. Speaker, I beg of you to not think about what would be most politically effective, because you can probably win that way and leave the country torn asunder," Judge Higginbotham said, again using the voice of Dr. King in the imagined letter.
Instead, he asked that Mr. Gingrich recall what the poet Langston Hughes wrote: "To save the dream for one, it must be saved for all."
The award to Professor Mann was presented by Provost Mark S. Wrighton, who praised his contributions over many years to the field of biomechanics (a field Dr. Mann is credited with creating) to MIT and to the broader community. Especially noted was Professor Mann's contribution to MIT's annual Martin Luther King Celebration.
"A few years back, at a time when these activities were at a low point, he encouraged Paul Gray (then president) to reinvigorate these celebrations," Professor Wrighton said.
As he acknowledged the award, Professor Mann recalled the privilege of hearing Dr. King speak at Lexington High School in the 1960s. He said he and Dr. King "both come out of a religious tradition that is entering its third millennium which is committed to the belief that every human being from conception on is a unique individual and as such is deserving of the respect of all other human beings. I want to accept the award in the name of all of you there and elsewhere who could equally well be here with me or replacing me on this occasion, many of you who have not have the same kind of opportunity. that I have had."
President Vest presented the award to Dr. McIntyre, whose field is condensed-matter physics. He noted her efforts as a graduate student at MIT to increase the number of black students in physics by organizing the first National Conference of Black Physics Students. "It was a resounding success," he said, and became an annual event held around the country. Dr. McIntyre provided leadership, vision and support and has a passion "for making a difference in the lives of young people and in somewhat older institutions."
In her acknowledgment, Dr. McIntyre asked Professor Jerome Friedman, who was in the audience, to stand. He was head of the Department of Physics when she formed the idea for the first conference. Dr. McIntyre went to Professor Friedman and asked for financial backing. "He didn't say `Come back tomorrow or next week.' He said, `It's done, we'll do this. I am calling the dean (then Gene Brown) and I'm sure he'll back this too, but from the Physics Department you have a commitment today. I'll call you tomorrow to let you know what the dean says.' Dr. Friedman," Professor McIntyre said, "I want to thank you for your support."
It is support of this kind, she went on, that explains why MIT is one of the three universities that account for the most minority physics graduate students in the nation. The others are Stanford and Howard University.
Judge Higginbotham also saluted Professor Friedman for his quick response to Dr. McIntyre's request. Before beginning his speech he said, "I was profoundly moved. It is a classic example of what administrators can do. They can help us solve the problem or they can filibuster saying why it is impossible to do."
The student groups were honored for jointly sponsoring the last six years a successful career fair for the entire MIT community, demonstrating that despite their cultural differences, that people of all kinds can work together.
The next fair will be held February 23-24.
The awards were accepted by the presidents of the three groups, Steven T. York of AISES, Shereta D. Williams of NSBE and Jeff O. Gonzales of SHPE.
Activities in Lobby 7 celebrating Dr. King were coordinated by Brima A. Wurie, assistant to the deans in the International Student Office and in Counseling and Support Services. Students participating were Geoffrey M. Phillippe, who was master of ceremonies; Belinda Garcia, LUCHA; Brian Dye, IFC; Sheldon Myrie, BSU; Todd York, AISES; Rebecca Wolfe, Hillel; and Teresa Lau, GAMIT.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 15, 1995.