A disquieting personal question was posed to members of the MIT community by Dr. Julius L. Chambers, keynote speaker at the 22nd annual celebration of the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., held February 16.
"Why are we gathered here today, to commemorate Dr. King or to praise and endorse his teachings?" asked Dr. Chambers, chancellor of North Carolina Central University and former director of the NAACP's Legal Defense and Eductional Fund.
"Do we seriously believe that America will ever eliminate considerations of race. or are we simply commemorating an imagined memory, showing our faces to prove we're not racist? Are we giving. lip service. with little or no commitment to the dreams of Dr. King? I would like to think that you and MIT are dedicated to a better world, one free of race and gender discrimination, free of religious discrimination and poverty. Our deeds, however, belie that optimism.
"For a few moments," Dr. Chambers went on-speaking in a restrained manner that intensified the impression that he was addressing each person in the Sala de Puerto Rico personally, rather than talking collectively to the group of more than 300 people-"I would like to raise with each of you the sincerity of your presence. Perhaps as an invited guest, I should be loath to be so personal. I believe, however, that our failure to raise this question, to be personal and direct, accounts for our refusal over the years to seriously address the issue of race. We push the issue aside and declare victory. It is easier that way, even while witnessing racial manifestations all around us."
Dr. Chambers warned that Dr. King's dreams of "a world free of racial discrimination are seriously questioned" in this "critical time" in our nation.
He cited a recent Supreme Court action "foreclosing almost any possibility of establishing racial discrimination. One must now prove intent and purpose in order to challenge successfully any practice that effectively disadvantages a racial or gender group disproportionately. We know that such requirements impose impossible burdens on victims of discrimination. Moreover, it requires proof of evil motives and that will set black and white citizens against each other and practically eliminate any chance of establishing working relationships between people."
He added that the court also assumes in effect that "all past discrimination has been eliminated" and closes its eyes "to our sordid history of race, to segregation and discrimination."
He warned that the nation is rejecting the "necessary and meaningful remedial steps" such as affirmative action and race-based remedies that can "correct the past and move toward a race-neutral or colorblind society."
These "assaults," Dr. Chambers said, "are clothed in new language and, except for our racial history might be appealing. We are told, for example, that Dr. King did not seek racial preferences. He dreamed of a color-blind society and introducing race in remedies for discrimination is contrary, we are told, to everything that Dr. King stood for and is contrary to the original intent of the 14th Amendment."
In reality, he went on, "no one should expect that anywhere in America we are suddenly going to forget our history and become race neutral. It is only through our constant struggle, working together, sacrificing together and striving to ensure respect for each other's contributions and equality for all people that we will begin to achieve a true colorblind society.
"Dr. King knew this but tempered his advocacy to the specific issues of the moment-the pervasive overt exclusion and segregation of African-Americans in all walks of life. Read his speeches and study his teachings. While he was a strong advocate for peace and love, he urged all people, black and white, to dedicate their lives to eradicating the evil scourge" of racism.
"It is that same racism that Dr. King faced which necessitates affirmative action, minority voting districts, school desegregation and other race-based remedies today. We cannot ignore how people got into their present positions, the role that race played or continues to play, until we reach the point of a truly race-neutral society. We must employ whatever means are necessary to ensure that goal," Dr. Chambers said, citing busing and affirmative action.
He called on the audience to "pause during this commemoration and reflect on our own practices. That was the constant appeal of Dr. King. The challenge is to ensure that all of us have a realistic opportunity for an equal chance in life, and to accomplish this, with America's racial history, we must abandon or modify many of our traditional practices built on white male dominance."
Dr. Chambers, concluding by recalling Dr. King's speech in which he said he had seen that promised land when racial harmony will exist, said he has "abiding faith. that you and I will learn to appreciate and respect each other, that we will shortly undersand that our destinies are inextricably intertwined, that none of us can succeed unless we ensure fairness in treatment for all others. Ours is a great country, with resources to accommodate all of us. We must appreciate with Langston Hughes that our dreams for America are the same:
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be pioneer on the plain, seeking a home
where he himself is free."